JusticeWatch: criminal justice’s ‘perfect storm’

Perfect storm
A ‘perfect storm’ of factors was undermining the quality of criminal defence lawyers according to a new report by the charity Transform Justice, as reported by Holly Newing on the Justice Gap. In his foreword to the report (Criminal defence in an age of austerity: Zealous advocate or cog in a machine? here), the chief exec of Fair Trials Jago Russell commented that our criminal justice system was ‘fast descending into a source of national shame’.

The report’s authors, Penelope Gibbs and Fionnuala Ratcliffe, pointed to ever higher ‘systemic barriers to achieving good advice and representation’ throughout the criminal justice system.

They found that whilst defendants wanted proactive and regular communication with their lawyer, their ability to choose someone with these skills was severely limited. One focus group participant said that those in police custody ‘might have a choice of which solicitor you pick off a list, but it’s a blind choice. You’ve no information to understand it.’

A report in the Law Society’s Gazette.focused on the fee structure creating ‘perverse incentives’The fixed police station fee (‘£131.40 for each police station attendance in Hartlepool to £274.66 in Heathrow’) was ‘too low and too fixed’; and created a financial incentive for the most experienced lawyers to do the least complex cases because they were the quickest. The report ought to be ‘required reading’ for the MoJ, it reckoned.

‘The criminal justice system becomes no more than a machine producing “outputs” (more often than not, convictions) as efficiently as possible,’ wrote Jago Russell in his introduction. ‘The lawyer’s role in ensuring justice and fairness has been overtaken by more easily measurable metrics of cost and speed. Fair trial rights and defence lawyers become bothersome “inefficiencies”, getting in the way of a swift conviction.’

Law centre vacancies

Government amends LASPO to extend legal aid for migrant children
A year after the government announced a U-turn over legal aid for vulnerable migrant children the MoJ finally laid draft legislation in parliament to make good on the promise, reported by Monidipa Fouzder in the Gazette.

‘Once the statutory instrument is approved by parliament, immigration and citizenship matters for under-18s separated from their parents, or who are looked after by a local authority, will be brought back into the scope of legal aid,’ she reported. LASPO made special provision for children under 18 in family law proceedings to obtain legal aid but not for migrant children, it pointed out.

Justice minister Paul Maynard MP said: ‘It is absolutely right that legal aid should be available to separated migrant children to resolve their immigration status, which is why this has always been available through the exceptional case funding scheme. The changes we are bringing in will mean they can access the support they need quicker and more easily.’’

Women in the criminal justice system
A new research project has been launched looking at whether or not the criminal appeal system is accessible to women and, in particular, what are the barriers to appealing convictions and sentences for women. The research is being done through the Griffins Fellowship, which encourages new thinking about women and girls in the criminal justice system, and is hosted by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University.

Naima Sakande, women’s justice advocate at the legal charity Appeal (formerly Centre for Criminal Appeals) explains: ‘Given the well documented challenges faced by women sentenced to custody, and the fall in the number of criminal appeals across the system, this research project seeks to find out whether or not the criminal appeal system is accessible to women and to identify what the particular barriers to appealing convictions and sentences for women may be.’

Sakande is calling on lawyers to fill out a questionnaire open until August 31 (here) or on Appeal’s website here.

New boss
Robert Buckland QC has become the fifth lord chancellor in four years. He used to practise as a criminal barrister at Apex Chambers in Cardiff and in 2009 was appointed a recorder of the crown court.

‘Many congratulations,’ tweeted his (recently resigned) predecessor David Gauke. ‘This is a good appointment. Not a solicitor, merely a barrister, but this will go down well.’

England’s crumbling court infrastructure suffered intensely during yesterday’s blazing heat as at least one prominent murder trial was disrupted owing to the weather, reported The Times’ Brief.

‘A leading lawyer took to social media to alert colleagues that a murder trial he was involved in at the Old Bailey in London had to be moved because of the heat,’ it said. ‘Charlie Sharrard, QC, wrote on Twitter that the jury had to retire because of “overheating” in a youth murder trial involving six defendants.’ The trial was moved to Blackfriars crown court ‘only for it to emerge that the dock there would not accommodate six defendants’.

Paul Maynard, the legal aid minister, took part in #takeyourmptowork, an initiative run by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers and the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. ‘I hear from lots of people about the challenges they face, but having the opportunity to see it with my own eyes and really get to understand the experiences that people within the justice system are having day to day is invaluable,’ he said.

He spent the day with staff at the Fylde Coast and Legal Centre in his Blackpool constituency. ‘This ward has the fourth highest level of deprivation in the country, so the availability of this type of service is essential for local people to access justice and obtain the support they are entitled to,’ he wrote here. The ‘main take away’, he added was that it was ‘so important for people to get the right type of support, and, crucially, at the right time’.

At the House of Commons launch for the initiative, as he trotted out the usual ministerial line about the £1.6 billion a year spent by the government on legal aid, he found himself heckled by one of his Conservative colleagues (as reported by The Times’ Brief). Alex Chalk, Tory MP for Cheltenham and a member of the justice select committee, interjected: ‘That’s not enough.’

Chalk has been an outspoken supporter of increasing the legal aid budget. ‘Sadly for lawyers and their clients it is widely predicted that he will lose his seat at the next general election, as he is a Remain MP in a strongly pro-Brexit constituency,’ the Brief noted.

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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