JusticeWatch: British justice ‘in flames’

Nothing happening
No one who knew anything about the justice system doubted it was in crisis, wrote the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Charlie Falconer in the Guardian (here). He argued that the crisis was ‘unprecedented’ and that its were ‘poor people’ in an article headed ‘British justice is in flames. The MoJ’s fiddling is criminal.’

It was ‘no longer reliably convicting only the guilty’ and the disclosure problems in serious sex cases had ‘almost certainly’ resulted in innocent people being convicted, Falconer argued. The system for releasing prisoners on parole was letting out those who were unsafe (John Worboys) and keeping inside those who were safe under the ‘relentlessly unfair’ IPP system. Prisons were as ‘dangerous as they have ever been’ and the probation service had ‘ceased to function in the face of a misconceived privatisation’.

Whereas legal aid has been so cut as a result of the ‘terrible’ LASPO reforms that the government has ‘maintained massively flawed decision-making systems’ safe in the knowledge that most of those who are the victims of wrong rulings had ‘no effective means of redress’.

‘The cause of this crisis is pretty clear – the justice system has endured austerity cuts from 2011 onwards more punishing than any other domestic delivery department. And the cuts are continuing pretty well unabated for the next two years. There will, by 2020, have been a 40% reduction in real terms of public expenditure by the Ministry of Justice – £10bn down to £6bn, with £600m still to go. And all this on the basis that the system expects the same standards as before – the same level of justice, the same numbers of people in jail or more, and the same non-custodial alternatives. The government has offered no leadership on how this is to be achieved.’
Lord Falconer

He argued that ‘nothing meaningful’ was going on within government to address this.

Meanwhile lawyers and politicians questioned whether the government would be able to complete the long-awaited LASPO review – according to the Law Society’s Gazette.

Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, told the all-party parliamentary group meeting on legal aid that Chancery Lane was ‘still waiting to receive a letter setting out how the ministry will engage with the legal profession’.

Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith and vice-chair of the legal aid all-party group, told the Gazette it would take a while for the MoJ to analyse the evidence received under the review. ‘I often criticise the government for taking its time to respond to consultations, but this is such a big project. We have the benefit of the last five years of saying how LASPO has completely changed the terrain as far as legal aid and access to justice is concerned that I would rather the government take this seriously and take their time with it. What I would not want to see is [the government] just going through the motions.’

Remembering Sir Henry
I paid tribute to tireless & effective campaigner Sir Henry Brooke in the New Law Journal. I interviewed Sir Henry last month about research by the World Justice Project as reported for an article in the Guardian (here). I  spoke to the retired Lord Justice of Appeal  shortly before he went into a hospital for a heart operation. Sadly, he did not recover from the surgery.

According to the research, almost one-third of people with legal problems in the UK suffered a stress-related or physical illness as a result

‘So many health problems are caused by anxiety and stress when dealing with an issue that one might not recognise as a legal problem,’ Sir Henry told me. ‘All the research is saying that if you tackle the causes of the potential stress and mental health issues at the start, you save a great deal in healthcare costs and the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and housing later down the track.’ As vice-chair of the Bach commission into the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts, he was keen that policy makers and commentators read beyond the Bach Commission report’s executive summary. In fact, I noted, he would rarely miss an opportunity to direct people towards the very detailed appendices he had compiled.

To this end, I was sent a lengthy note ahead of the interview. Sir Henry had a typically upbeat spin on the point made by many legal aid lawyers that the LASPO cuts were a ‘false economy’—in other words, that government efforts to save money would end up delivering a net loss as other government departments were forced to pick up the tab further down the line. As Sir Henry put it, this was an area of social policy in which huge savings could be made ‘to the benefit of the health and happiness of millions’. His interest, he wrote, was ‘getting the message across to non-lawyers’. Not an easy message but an important one. He will be missed.

John Worboys hearing: Broken video links and no lawyer
Victims of the black cab rapist welcomed a ruling allowing a challenge to the decision to release him from jail. The Justice Secretary last month ordered a review of the parole board following the controversy over plans for the release of John Worboys.

He appeared in person at the High Court after judges experienced a faulty video link during a hearing the previous day and without a lawyer – as reported on the Justice Gap (here). ‘How is it that I can call my brother in Brisbane over Skype, but we’re unable to contact a person in a prison in this country?’ said Sir Brian Leveson.

Worboys had no legal representation when he arrived. There was a half hour break for Worboys to consult with a prison law specialist Dean Kingham who had attended the hearing because of his professional interest in the case.

Solicitor Harriet Wistrich, who is representing the victims, said that one of her clients found it ‘very, very difficult’ that Worboys was present. ‘She felt it was really necessary to be there and to say she wasn’t going to be frightened of him being there, and to challenge his power,’ she told the Press Association. ‘But obviously it is hard seeing him there in the flesh after all this time.’

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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