JusticeWatch: Cuts that hurt

Cuts that hurt
There was lots of coverage for the Amnesty report on the impact of the legal aid cuts – see here for LV article. You can download the report – Cuts that Hurt: The impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice  – here.

One consequence of LASPO has been that separating couples are not evenly represented, the Guardian noted. ‘When I go to court I have to cross-examine my ex. That terrifies me,’ one woman told Amnesty. ‘I have so many sleepless nights. If I lose I know I will blame myself – it’s because I wasn’t good enough. But then I think, how can I be good enough when I’m up against a barrister?’

Avon and Bristol Law Centre was forced to turn away up to 4,000 people needing help last year, reported the Law Society’s Gazette. The director Clare Carter told Amnesty that the cases the centre was taking ‘are just the tip of the iceberg’.

Some things might change – but, apparently, not the words of the Ministry of Justice. ‘We have a generous legal aid system,’ a spokesman told the paper, repeating the stock response to any press inquiry about legal aid and one that dates back to pre LASPO days.

It has been three years since Full Fact, the independent fact-checking organisation, challenged the validity of such a claim (here). The year before LASPO came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases and the year after it was available in only 497,000 cases – ‘a staggering drop of 46 per cent’, Amnesty noted.

If the legal aid scheme ever was ‘generous’, it isn’t now.

Somewhat accident prone
Lord Sumption was courting controversy again (see here). This time the supreme court judge was offering his plain spoken views on the pointlessness of law degrees at a training session for judges – ‘not a particularly good training for the handling of evidence, or for acute social observation, or for the exercise of analytical judgments about facts’, apparently – as reported by Legal Futures.

‘Over the years, I have made a great many enemies in law faculties up and down the land by suggesting that law should be offered only as a second degree, as it is in North America,’ noted the history graduate and respected historian.

Moving on to foreign policy, Sumption reflected that our nation had been ‘somewhat accident prone’ over the last 30 years. ‘Can this be something to do with the fact that the last Prime Minister with a profound grasp of history was Harold Macmillan?’ he asked.

A vision statement (without vision)
Writing for the Law Society’s Gazette, Roger Smith pointed out that he had been reading documents such as the MoJ’s Transforming our Justice System for more than 40 years. The former director of JUSTICE flagged up ‘the danger of a jaded nostalgia for a past that really did not seem so good at the time’. Smith doesn’t take issue with the paper’s contents so much as ‘its poor technical quality’. ‘Let us note with just a background harrumph the status of this document, split between a ‘vision statement’ (God help us) and a summary/consultation paper,’ he writes. ‘The main version starts badly and gets worse.’

‘The real danger is that the Ministry of Justice will prove as inept in implementation of its proposals as it has proved in articulating them.’
Roger Smith

Digital injustice
Jane Ryan reported on plans for ‘radical changes’ to the benefit appeal process in the Guardian, including a shift away from ‘in-person’ hearings with judges making many decisions based solely on written evidence, telephone calls or video conference as part of a move to digitise the justice system.

‘We get 90% success when the appeal’s in person. On paper, even with us involved, it’s barely 50% success,’ says Michelle Cardno, founder and lawyer at Fightback 4 Justice, a not-for-profit group offering appeal advice and advocacy. According to research by the University College London and the Nuffield Foundation in 2013 claimants were almost three times as likely to win an appeal for disability living allowance (DLA) after an oral hearing than paper alone (46%, compared to 17%).

‘Truly tremendous’
The Greater Manchester Law Centre is recruiting. Six years ago there were three law centres in Manchester (South Manchester, Wythenshawe and North Manchester), but they all closed down. The new Law Centre has been set up to fill the vacuum. You can read about it here.

They are looking for ‘a truly tremendous person’ to deliver. Find out more here.

‘People are facing greater and greater hardship as a result of cuts in benefits, homelessness, uncertainty at work, and escalating racism. Legal aid – which is an essential part of the welfare state – has been cut again and again. The people most in need across the ten districts of Greater Manchester are being deprived of access to justice.’
Greater Manchester Law Centre

Hillsborough lawyers honoured
The Liverpool Echo reported on two of the Hillsborough lawyers – Elkan Abrahamson of Broudie Jackson Canter, and Marcia Willis Stewart of Birnberg Peirce & Partners – being honoured at the this month’s Halsbury Legal awards. ‘It’s been a privilege to represent some of the families of the Hillsborough victims – they are the real heroes in our campaign for justice,’ Abrahamson told the paper. The Echo reminded readers of Marcia Willis Stewart’s words at the press conference held after the verdicts were returned. (‘I do hope there are no members of The S*n newspaper in this room.’)

Meanwhile the Justice Gap reported on the refusal by the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate instructions by the suspended chief constable for South Yorkshire Police to his legal team. The families accuse David Crompton of having directed SYP’s legal team to act in an overly adversarial manner and backtrack on public apologies acknowledging their own role in pedaling lies about the behaviour of fans made in the wake of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

Pete Weatherby QC, who represented 22 families at the inquest, called it ‘a deeply regrettable decision’ by the watchdog.

‘The IPCC were represented by counsel in the inquest proceedings so they know precisely how Mr Crompton conducted South Yorkshire Police’s case. From blaming the supporters, Sheffield Wednesday stewards and the Council, South Yorkshire Police tried to avoid responsibility, directly contrary to Mr Crompton’s public apology and acceptance of responsibility in 2012. So long as senior public servants are allowed to act with impunity there will be little trust in the police, the IPCC or public authorities generally.’
Pete Weatherby QC

Whiplash joy
Apparently insurers were ‘cursing the government for quietly ditching plans’ to end the right to compensation for whiplash injuries – but claimant personal injury lawyers were lining up to the tell the Times’ Brief newsletter about their joy (here).

‘We’re delighted with the decision,’ said Qamar Anwar, the managing director of First4Lawyers, a claimant referral business. ‘While it will no doubt be a huge disappointment to the insurance industry, it essentially protects access to justice for those who need it and, at a time when you can claim for a 15-minute train delay, this move makes complete sense.’

There was no room for complacency, Neil Sugarman of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers said. ‘We will continue to argue that any reforms to the personal injury claims process must be based on independent evidence, rather than insurance industry rhetoric.’


National Pro Bono Week
It’s almost upon us again. You can find what is going on here – starts November 7.

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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