Thunderclouds over horizon, dark, gray.

JusticeWatch: Trouble ahead

Trouble ahead
Monidipa Fouzder in the Law Society’s Gazette spotted ‘an ominous shift in terminology in the MoJ’s green paper on ‘legal support’ which promises/ threatens to ‘usher in a new era of legal aid reform’. ‘The reform programme will deliver a justice system that is more accessible to the public,’ justice minister Oliver Heald said. ‘It aims to support people in resolving their disputes using simpler, modern procedures.’

The following day lord chancellor Liz Truss told peers that they didn’t want to ‘redo legal aid according to the system we’ve had before; we want to design a new system and we want to look at a new legal support mechanism around that system.’

‘There is a strong desire among the profession to take action,’ Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association chair Zoe Gascoyne told Fouzder. ‘The common ground among all practitioners is that the profession cannot and will not accept a further cut, however it might be dressed up.’

Trouble ahead (2)
‘With business rates relief and tax rises for the self-employed stealing the limelight in today’s budget, government documents also reveal deeper cuts to the MoJ, with its spending slashed by 15% over the next three years,’ Georgiana Tudor blogged in Legal Business.

‘Although not mentioned in the budget speech, the MoJ’s current £6.9bn allocation is set to fall to £6bn by 2019/2020. This will represent a fall of more than 30% over a decade, as it stood at £8.9bn in 2010/2011.’
Legal Business

International Women’s Day
The Guardian ran a powerful editorial which began by pointing out a patchwork quilt with 598 squares would be displayed in Westminster Hall to mark International Women’s Day. ‘Each square on that quilt represents a woman who will never have the chance to celebrate the incremental but important steps towards gender equality, or take part in the fight for the further change needed to make it a reality,’ it said. ‘Each square represents one of the 598 women killed by a partner or ex-partner between 2009 and 2015 in England and Wales.’

The PM’s personal commitment to reform the law around domestic abuse should be welcomed, the Guardian said. ‘But its impact is jeopardised by cuts to local government funding that have resulted in the slashing of domestic abuse services – 17% of specialist women’s refuges have closed since 2010 – and reductions in the police budget. Tragically, without proper investment, we can expect the quilt to get steadily bigger,’ it read.

I wrote about the lack of fanfare from the government over the relaxation of the legal aid regime preventing vulnerable people from public funding following a long campaign by the likes of Rights of Women for the New Law Journal. ‘It will correct a clear injustice. According to the RoW, the regime introduced in 2013 meant that four out of 10 women fleeing violent relationships could not meet such evidential hurdles and, as a result, were forced to face their abusers in court themselves.’

The article continued: ‘So why no fuss? Well, politicians don’t get too many plaudits for a u-turn, no matter how wise it is. It was the Tory-led Coalition government that introduced the mean-spirited regime under LASPO when it scrapped all forms of private family law from the legal aid scheme.’

Women were the majority owners of a third of all law firms in England and Wales, according to figures released to coincide with International Women’s Day this week. The Times’s Brief newsletter noted that the solicitors’ profession was ‘becoming increasingly feminine’. Women now made up 48% of solicitors.

‘The society, the quasi-trade union for the profession, pointed out that for the past 20 years women had accounted for more than half of entrants to the profession – and more than 61% in 2015. However, women make up fewer than 29% of law firm partners.’
Times’ Brief

Cover up?
Max Hill QC, recently appointed as the new terrorism watchdog, was accused of an alleged cover-up of vital evidence that could cause one of Britain’s biggest terrorist cases to collapse, reported David Rose in the Mail on Sunday.

Max Hill QC, former chair of the Criminal Bar Association, was chosen last month by Home Secretary Amber Rudd to be the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. According to the MoS, when Hill presented the 21/7 bombings case to Woolwich Crown Court in 2007, his team was warned that forensic evidence against the four defendants and another member of the gang might be deeply flawed.

Government scientists set out their concerns about the questionable evidence in a report before the trial. ‘This should have been disclosed to the defence under rules to guarantee fair trials – but the report stayed hidden,’ claimed Rose.

Four of the convicted bombers have made an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission asking it to order a fresh hearing at the Court of Appeal. According to the report, their lawyers argue Hill’s failure to disclose documents amounted to a ‘bad faith abuse of process’ and ‘so casting a potential shadow over Mr Hill’s role as Terrorism Reviewer’.

Here to help?
The BBC reported that ‘the world’s first robot lawyer’ (or ‘chatbot’, if that helps) initially used to fight traffic fines was now helping refugees with legal claims.

It’s a computer program that carries out conversations through texts or vocal commands – and it uses Facebook Messenger to gather information about a case before ‘spitting out advice and legal documents’. ‘It was originally designed to help people wiggle out of parking or speeding tickets,’ the BBC reported. But now the designer Joshua Browder has adapted his ‘bot’ to help asylum seekers.

‘It works by asking a series of questions to determine if a refugee is eligible for asylum protection under international law,’ he told BBC Trending, ‘for example: ‘are you afraid of being subjected to torture in your home country?’

‘Once it knows a user can claim asylum, it takes down hundreds of details and automatically fills in a completed immigration application. Crucially, all the questions that the bot asks are in plain English and artificial intelligence generated feedback appears during the conversation.’
Joshua Browder

The BBC accompanied the article with the following pic. Terrifying.

chatbot

Look to your own conscience
In the latest LawWorks newsletter Steve Hynes, LAG’s director of LAG, explored the uneasy relationship between Government and pro bono following ex lord Chancellor Michael Gove inflammatory suggestion that wealthy lawyers should ‘look to their consciences’, pull their fingers out and do more pro bono.

According to LawWorks pro bono clinics gave advice in 28,000 cases in 2014-15 and 35,000 cases in 2015-16 – ‘a credible achievement for a completely voluntary service’, noted Hynes, ‘but less than 8% of the total cases lost to legal aid cuts’. ‘This is set against massively increasing demand on the clinics network – 89% of clinics reported an increase in demand for advice over the last reporting year.’

‘As a consequence of the legal aid and other cuts to not for profit agencies there has been a knock-on impact on the pro bono clinics they host.  In the LawWorks 2014-15 report, 41% of clinics reported “reduced capacity to provide pro bono services” and 40% reported “reduced access to funding to run their clinic” compared to the previous year. Some services have disappeared completely, for example the closures, due to legal aid cuts, of Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre in Leeds and Cardiff Law Centre spelt the end for the pro bono clinics they hosted.’
Steve Hynes

New duty slots
The LAA has published the duty rota under the new crime contracts, here

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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