JusticeWatch: Conveyor belt justice

Conveyor belt justice
I spent a day at Stratford Housing Centre in east London shadowing Simon Mullings, the housing duty adviser as part of the new Justice in a Time of Austerity project supported by LegalVoice. The article ran in New Law Journal here.

On a busy day Mullings can see as many as 20 people. ‘It can be manic,’ he told me. ‘You’re literally running between the duty room and the court, constantly talking to housing officers and ushers.’

It was a bewildering experience for tenants fearful of losing their homes. ‘Half of them think you’re the judge,’ Mullings said between clients. ‘I have people ask me if they are going to go to prison today.’

Each tenant had roughly five minutes of Mullings’s time. ‘He takes their paperwork and quickly tries to work out what on earth is going on,’ I wrote. ‘Those brief meetings are occasionally interrupted by the usher directing him to Courtroom 12 where a deputy district judge presides over cases in about the same time Mullings has to make sense of them.

It’s conveyor belt justice. The judge has to get through his list and the ushers make sure he does.’ ‘The more people there are, the less time I have to explain what’s going on and the more confusing it is for clients,’ Mullings said. ‘It is unavoidable.’

It was ‘hard to think of a court process where the stakes are higher and where access to justice is more imperilled’, I wrote. Housing advice was removed from the legal aid scheme under LASPO except where there is a risk of homelessness. There are 113 housing duty schemes across the country. The MoJ recently tried to consolidate them into 47 schemes through a price-competitive competition that would drive fees down even further. The Law Centres Network successfully challenged the tender in July.

Simon Mullings has been manning duty schemes through the housing crisis, the economic crash, the 2013 legal aid cuts as well as, of course, the roll-out of universal credit.

‘Everything that could go wrong is going wrong. We duty advisers are basically like an emergency A&E service to patch things up—but the wounds get deeper and more difficult to heal.’
Simon Mullings

Turned away
New research from the family lawyers’ group Resolution (reported by BuzzFeed News’ Emily Dugan) shows that the number of people family lawyers are turning away because they can’t afford to pay and do not qualify for legal aid has increased fourfold since 2014. According to Dugan: ‘Then, lawyers reported turning away an average of 25–45 people each year, but by 2018 this had reached an average of 100–200 people they could not take on.’ The Resolution figures were submitted to the government, which has been gathering evidence for a review of LASPO that is supposed to report back later this year.

According to the article, more than 68,000 private family law cases came to court last year where at least one party had no lawyer and, of these, 30,000 had no lawyer on either side.

CPS misspell victims’ names
Victims of crime were being ‘let down’ by poor communication from the CPS, the BBC reported. The CPS Inspectorate looked at 162 files and reckoned ‘far too many’ letters included ‘simple mistakes’ such as ‘spelling, the wrong form of address and the incorrect name of the recipient were common’.

Reasons for decisions to discontinue a case, or substantially alter charges against a defendant, were not sent quickly enough in 43% of cases, and in nearly 72% of cases there was ‘no evidence’ victims views were taken into account before these types of decisions are made.

‘You win some, you lose some…
The Solicitors Regulation Authority is not going to appeal the High Court’s dismissal of its challenge against the decision to clear Leigh Day of misconduct.

The Law Society’s Gazette reported that its chief executive Paul Philip refused to reveal how much it had cost the SRA. ‘It was estimated the SRA spent around £1.5m on the prosecution before what the Gazette called ‘the longest disciplinary tribunal in the profession’s history’ even kicked off and a costs hearing to decide on the final figure is likely to be held next year,’ said the Gazette. ‘You win some and lose some – we win the vast majority of appeals against Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal decisions and we lost one,’ said Philip.

Philip denied the SRA’s conduct of the case was influenced by the MoD. Asked if he would therefore disclose emails and letters sent between the SRA and MoD, he replied: ‘We are not publishing confidential correspondence. The fact is that we have ongoing policy discussions and disclosing correspondence would impede our ability to speak to government departments.’

Refusing instructions
The Law Society has reminded solicitors that they should refuse their client’s instruction if it breaches their code of conduct. This was in response to the first female practising Afghan barrister in England and Wales being told by an instructing solicitor that the client wanted a ‘white, male barrister instead’.

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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