JusticeWatch: ‘A justice system in crisis’

Bach report out today
Food banks, zero-hours contracts and the bedroom tax were ‘perhaps the most potent symbols of the cruelty’ of the Conservative government’s cuts agenda but ‘the scything away at people’s access to justice should be deemed equally callous,’ began Richard Burgon in the Guardian this morning.

Labour’s shadow justice minister was writing about the publication of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice out today – reported here on LegalVoice.

Legal aid had borne the brunt of cuts to the MoJ’s budget, Burgon continued; flagging up recent figures obtained by his party (as reported by LegalVoice) that showed ‘the devastating consequences of Laspo’ with legal aid providers across England and Wales down by 20%.

‘I am particularly excited by the idea in the report of a new, legally enforceable right to justice to match our rights to healthcare and education. Likewise, the report’s suggestion that investment in early legal advice and assistance could actually save the state resources by preventing the need for more costly legal representation and the escalation of disputes into court cases merits serious consideration. This pioneering report will certainly play an important role in informing the debates around Labour’s next manifesto process and our vision of a fairer justice system.’
Richard Burgon

The justice system was in ‘crisis’ as tens of thousands of people were unable to defend their rights due to cuts to legal aid and ‘excessively stringent’ eligibility requirements, reported the Independent on the Bach report.

LASPO had been expected to save £450m a year in real terms ‘but last year spending was down £950m compared with 2010’. ‘The commission has found that the justice system is in crisis,’ the report stated. ‘Most immediately, people are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been dramatically reduced and eligibility requirements made excessively stringent.’

According to the Guardian, the Fabian Society reckoned the costs of the Bach proposals would initially total less than the £950m underspend ‘at an estimated cost of around £400m per year’. It said: ‘The main elements of the extra proposed funding would be £120m for widening the scope of early legal help, £110m for extending eligibility for civil legal aid, £60m for limited widening of the scope of civil legal representation and £50m for a national fund for advice services,’ it said. ‘Not all the cuts are being reversed.’

Time to go?
Amber Rudd ‘confused herself with a 16th-century monarch last week, seemingly believing she has a divine right to rule‘, argued Charlie Falconer in the Guardian. The shadow justice minister and former Lord Chancellor was writing about the shocking case of Samim Bigzad, a 23-year-old asylum seeker who was ‘cowering in a hotel room in Kabul, threatened with beheading by the Taliban’.

Three times the courts had ordered the man to be returned and three times she refused ‘thinking she knew best and the courts had got it wrong’. ‘It displayed a disdainful arrogance for the courts and the law,’ Falconer said. ‘Unless she has an explanation, she has to go as home secretary. And the person who has a duty to see that the home secretary operates within the rule of law is the lord chancellor, David Lidington. This is as much a test of him as it is of her.’

Wrong in principle, disastrous in practice
Proposals from the UK’s most senior judge that politicians should have a say in appointing top judges would be ‘wrong in principle and disastrous in practice‘, Lord Pannick wrote in The Times law pages.

The cross-bench peer said that a recent suggestion by Baroness Hale, incoming president of the Supreme Court, would signal that political factors were relevant to the selection of judges.

Lord Pannick argued that politicians had ‘nothing specific’ to contribute to the selection panels for senior judges. ‘To welcome politicians on to an appointment panel would wrongly signal that political factors are relevant to selection,’ he wrote. ‘… One of the reasons that judges command respect is that they are seen to be appointed by a process free from political involvement.’

The Times Brief covered the story about the number of legal aid firms having fallen by 20 per cent in the past five years (see above) as confirmed by Sam Gyimah, the justice minister in response to a question by the Labour MP Gloria De Piero.

It quoted an interview with LAPG’s Carol Storer from Catherine Baksi’s report for Legal Voice. ‘We hear from legal aid practitioners on a regular basis, those pulling out of legal aid work as well as those who are trying to deliver a service but find the low rates of pay and the level of unpaid bureaucracy makes the work unsustainable,’ Storer said. ‘They live in hope but not expectation that rates will be increased. These are committed, knowledgeable lawyers who want to work in their community but until banks accept it to secure overdrafts, they cannot live on idealism.’

Farewell to SJ
Solicitors Journal is to close after 160 years with seven jobs to go. According to the Press Gazette, the oldest legal weekly title ‘appears to have fallen victim to pressure on advertising and subscriptions prompted by the advent of digital media‘. It was put up for sale but no buyer could be found, its publisher Wilmington said. The Press Gazette noted that The Lawyer went from a weekly to monthly publication earlier in the year and Legal Week had gone online only in 2011.

Apparently, the SJ launched itself thus: ‘The reality of the alleged want of a journal which shall distinctively represent the solicitors will best be proved by the success of our exertions to supply it.’

Quoting these words, Michael Cross of the Law Society’s Gazette noted that the gloomy picture of legal publishing was ‘not a picture we recognise’ (possibly because the Gazette goes to every solicitor in the land as part of their practising certificate fee? Just a thought).

‘Apart from our own growing readership figures and the apparent thriving of slick titles covering the City, we’re seeing heightened competition from a national press beginning to take the legal sector seriously as well as a new generation of feisty, irreverent – and occasionally journalistically dodgy – legal news websites,’ Cross said.

Unfinished business
The outgoing Lord Chief Justice is to chair the new Commission on Justice in Wales to review the justice system and policing in Wales, and ’consider how the system can achieve better outcomes’, the Gazette reported. The first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones said the commission would deal with ‘unfinished business’ from the cross-party Commission on Devolution in Wales. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd will chair the commission when he steps down as lord chief justice next month. ‘In Wales, we have had a separate legislature for six years but, as yet, we do not have our own jurisdiction. By establishing the Commission on Justice in Wales, we are taking an important first step towards developing a distinctive justice system which is truly representative of Welsh needs,’ Jones said.

Friends like these…
A district judge explained how he had to throw a McKenzie Friend out of court after she disrupted proceedings, reported Legal Futures.

Mary Bennett was apparently helping a husband in the final hearing of a wife’s application for financial remedies in a divorce. ‘On the second day of the hearing, at the lunchtime adjournment, there was an outburst from her, during which she would not leave the court and threatened complaints against me, the solicitor for the wife and criminal sanctions against the wife,’ District Judge Nicol recorded. ‘In consequence of her outburst, which was the last in a series of interruptions, I decided that her conduct disrupted the proceedings and I excluded her from the courtroom for the rest of the hearing.’

The husband was ‘perfectly capable of speaking for himself and I am satisfied that he suffered no prejudice as a result of having to conduct his own case’, the judge added.


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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