JusticeWatch: Conscious cruelty

Plugging a hole
The Law Society’s Gazette reported that the Legal Aid Agency was now ‘urgently trying to plug a hole’ in the provision of housing and debt advice in Cambridgeshire. ‘The latest invitation is the third the agency has issued in the past seven months, after access issues were identified in Kingston upon Hull and Surrey,’ it noted.

The Gazette linked that story to a debate in the House of Lords in which the Labour peer Lord Beecham challenged the justice minister Lord Keen as to whatever happened to the promised LASPO review. Beecham told the minister that he had been contacted that day by a young woman ‘in great distress’ who was in the middle of a custody case with her child’s father. Apparently, the ‘house cheered in agreement’ when Lord Woolf told Keen that what was happening in relation to legal aid was ‘damaging the reputation of our justice system’.

According to Chancery Lane, nearly a third of legal aid areas have only one solicitor provider specialising in legally aided housing advice. Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk had no housing providers.

Conscious cruelty
I, Daniel Blake, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, is out this week. The film tells the story of one man’s encounter with our Kafkaesque welfare system. Blake, a carpenter, suffers a heart attack but is ruled too healthy to receive benefits by the DWP. ‘People are living in fear, and it’s an absolutely intolerable way to live,’ film director Ken Loach said last night on the BBC’s Question Time. ‘There’s a conscious cruelty to the way the benefits system is being imposed. The Tory Government knows exactly what it is doing.’

Benefit sanctions were ‘a key driver of hunger and food bank use’, according to a study carried out by Oxford University academics – the Guardian reported.

Ministers had ‘persistently refused’ to accept that welfare reforms were connected to the proliferation of food banks. ‘But the Oxford study found that every three-month increase of 10 sanctions per 100,000 of the population over a four-year period was associated with around five more instances of adults being referred for charity food parcels, suggesting a “strong, dynamic relationship” between the two,’ the paper reported.

Passing the parcel
‘We have seen what a difference proper representation made to the families in the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the Hillsborough inquest. The Birmingham 21 families deserve nothing less,’ wrote Sir Henry Brooke on his blog. As reported on the Justice Gap, earlier in the week families of the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings had a request for legal aid granted – just days before inquest proceedings were due to start.

They had asked Home Secretary, Amber Rudd to set up a fund along the lines of the funding for the Hillsborough families but were refused. For the Hillsborough inquests, Theresa May insisted that the Home Office and other government departments provided non-means tested funding (as opposed to legal aid funding).

Without the fight from the families and the generosity of their lawyers, the inquest would never, ever have been resumed. Today is October 26th and the day after tomorrow… submissions are to be made on the scope and process of the resumed inquest. The families involved were told only yesterday that arrangements will be made for their legal teams to work with another firm and receive legal aid. Does the minister think that three days notice on this matter is sufficient?
Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

If you are not a specialist human rights lawyer, the state of the law on exceptional legal aid funding for inquests was ‘so dense that you need to tie a white towel round your head (and have a strong drink ready to hand)’, wrote Sir Henry, a former Court of Appeal judge.

‘I believe that the latest state of play is that the parcel has been passed by the Prime Minister to the Home Secretary, and by the Home Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, and by the Lord Chancellor to the Legal Aid Agency, to see if exceptional case funding might be available under the LASPO Act. When will the music stop? Will the parcel then be redirected somewhere else, and will this macabre game of  ‘pass the parcel’ be still going on when the inquest is over?’

It should be remembered that the activities – or inactivity – of the West Midland Police in the 1970s may be close to the centre of the coroner’s inquiries.  I remember vividly how a whole series of appeals were brought to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal in the 1980s and early 1990s on the grounds that the particular conviction was unsafe because of the involvement of one or more West Midlands police officers who were known to have misconducted themselves in other cases.  These are very troubled waters.
Sir Henry Brooke

The families’ Justice4the21 campaign was recognized at Liberty’s human rights awards this week alongside Des and Doreen James, the parents of Private Cheryl James in the ‘Long Walk’ award recognising those who have ‘dedicated decades to seeking truth and justice’.

Mark Scott of Bhatt Murphy won the human rights lawyer of the year award helping refugee children and vulnerable adults travel from Calais to the UK. You can read about Mark’s work in Calais here. Justice for Laughing Boy, Charlotte Haworth Hird and INQUEST were recognised for their ‘tireless efforts’ to improve the standard of care provided for people with mental health and learning disabilities following the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk in the ‘close to home’ award. Coventry Law Centre, Citizens Advice and Refugee and Migrant Centre were shortlisted.

Congratulations all. Full list of winners here.

Fraudulent claims
Sebastian Del Monte, a trainee at Hodge Jones & Allen responded to Lord Nally’s recent attack on ‘fraudulent’ lawyers where he accused them of acting like ‘1970s trade unionists’. The ‘one redeeming feature’ of his outburst was to be found in his call for a review of LASPO, he argued.

‘Though we can all agree that a review is the start of the solution, the problem remains as to the reviewer. As long as austerity – which according to Shailesh Vara MP (former justice minister) is “an economic fact!” rather than an ideological choice – remains the order of the day, I do not trust any politician, from either side of the political divide, to do much more than tut their lips lamenting the misfortune of their constituents, all the while having to explain that bankers’ bonuses have increased by 52% in the last year, MP’s salaries are beefed up and big businesses continue to avoid tax.’
Sebastian Del Monte



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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