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JusticeWatch: Better late than never

Better late than never #1
Kicking off a Westminster Hall debate on legal aid yesterday, the Labour MP Andy Slaughter called on the government to ‘tackle the funding issue head on’. ‘No one is saying that all the cuts since 2010 will be reversed, or that the clock will be turned back, but if the Government wish to honour their stated objectives for LASPO, and in particular, “to target legal aid at those who need it most”, they must put something extra in the pot.’

He went on to say: ‘Across the board, matter starts have gone down from more than 900,000 at their peak in 2010, to about 140,000 in the past year. That is a dramatic fall, but in some areas, such as welfare benefits, the decline has been even sharper.’

Bob Neill, Tory MP chair of the House of Commons’ justice committee, offered a little historic perspective. ‘The problem is that successive Governments seeking to reform—it is worth remembering that changes to legal aid did not begin with LASPO or the coalition Government; they were set in train initially, in some measure, during the Blair and Brown Governments—have run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,’ he said.

In cutting down on ‘some instances of needless expenditure that went beyond what was necessary to ensure justice’, Neill said there was ‘always a risk that the pendulum will go too far the other way’. ‘Having looked at the matter and tried as a lawyer to look at the evidence, I am sorry to say that I am driven to the conclusion that that is what has happened here,’ he noted.

‘The good news is that there is an opportunity to review things. It is a shame that it has taken so long, but we would all say, “Better late than never.” I know that the Minister is absolutely committed to ensuring proper, good-quality access for all who genuinely need it. I know her personal commitment to the Bar, the rule of law and our legal system and her personal experience of it, so I know she will approach this matter in the open-minded way she did when she was in practice herself. I urge her to look at the evidence.’
Bob Neill

The Labour MP Karen Buck noted that, ‘sadly, in Justice Week’, this week’s budget meant that the MoJ, ‘which with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’ had already taken the largest cuts of any department, was ‘to be subject to yet another cut’. ‘It is an unprotected Department, and we now know that its budget will be cut from £6.3 billion to £6 billion,’ she said. We are making the case for legal aid in a context in which justice funding is falling still further.’

Buck pointed out that law centres had lost 60% of their income from legal aid post LASPO, ‘and in the immediate aftermath we lost 11 law centres’. She paid tribute to ‘my own centre’, Paddington and North Kensington law centre ‘for doing such extraordinary work in the aftermath of Grenfell’.

Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts explained how the LASPO cuts were putting victims of domestic abuse in danger. A survey of 122 victims of stalking and domestic abuse conducted by her party found that 55% of victims had court proceedings taken out against them by their abusers, despite restraining orders being in place, and two thirds of the victims then had to appear in court.

The justice minister Lucy Frazer QC claimed that the government had made ‘a significant investment in legal aid’ spending £1.6 billion a year on it (‘a fifth of the MoJ’s budget) and in the last three years almost £6.5 million has been spent on the litigants in person support strategy.

Meanwhile Frazer appearing before the all-party parliamentary group on legal earlier in the week suggested the chances of extra cash being ploughed into the legal aid system were ‘slim’ – according to the Law Society’s Gazette.

Better late than never #2
Speaking to the Observer, Alison Saunders finally admitted what everyone else in the criminal justice has been saying for most of her tenure as DPP – i.e., that the justice system was ‘creaking’ and about to fall apart.

In a final ‘emotional’ interview before stepping down as head of the CPS, Saunders admitted feeling bruised by the last five years with critics branding the service ‘toxic’. ‘I don’t think you’d be human if it didn’t affect you,’ she said, between tears, but she felt she had ‘done a good job’. Saunders lost a third of her workforce as a result of funding cuts of more than 25%.

‘As the DPP, I accept responsibility for what happens in the service. I could have stood there and blamed the police and say it all starts with them, but I don’t think it helps’
Alison Saunders

The interview prompted a huge amount of scepticism. ‘WHIMPERING Alison Saunders bids a tearful farewell after five disastrous years as Crown Prosecutor,’ began The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh. ‘On her way out she blames everyone but herself — from Plod to the Chancellor — for the most shameful record as Director of Public Prosecutions since her predecessor, Labour poodle Keir Starmer.’

Legal aid advice deserts news
This week it was reported that a vulnerable 17-year-old who was housed in a tent by a council became emaciated and was detained in a psychiatric hospital. According to the Guardian, an investigation by the local government and social care ombudsman found there had been ‘a long list of failures’ by Cornwall council over how it responded to the boy’s situation which had had ‘dreadful consequences’.

‘At one point the council even helped the boy pitch a tent,’ the paper reported. The ombudsman ordered the council to pay £2,500 to the now young man and to pay £1,500 to his mother for the severe distress and frustration it caused.

Justice in a time of austerity
New research commissioned by the Bar Council revealed ‘the full scale of a decade of dis-investment in justice’. According to Professor Martin Chalkley, there had been a 27% real term cut to the MoJ’s funding in the last 10 years which was ‘out of step’ with cuts to other public services.

According to the report, in the 10 years between 2008 and 2018:

  • Government expenditure has grown by 13 per cent in real terms
  • Meanwhile, ordinary funding for the MoJ has fallen by 27%
  • CPS funding fell by 34% with less spent ‘per prosecution’
  • Funding for legal aid fell by 32% – compared to education funding (fell by only 5%) and defence (6%)

‘In the last 10 years, the size of the economic ‘cake’ available for public spending has in fact grown,’ said Prof Chalkley. ‘Not only that, the Government’s share of that cake has stayed stable at around 40 per cent. The austerity measures put in place following the financial crisis do not therefore explain the need for a 27 per cent real terms cut in justice funding. Cuts to justice are clearly way out of step with what happened in other areas of public spending.’

More here.

Meanwhile…
Families from Hackney are trying to overturn local authority cuts to special educational needs (SEN) spending, as reported in the Guardian (here). The paper reported that the JR against the London borough was ‘the latest in a series of legal actions launched by parents across England as struggling local authorities turn their eye to ballooning SEN spending in order to make savings’.

In a speech to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the president of the supreme court argued that the Mental Health Act needed to be updated because too many people were being detained in hospital and doctors were becoming increasingly risk-averse.

‘The figures are remarkable,’ Lady Hale said (as reported in the Guardian). ‘Over the last 10 years, detentions in England have risen by 47% – from 43,000 in 2005/6 to 63,500 in 2015/16.’

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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