JusticeWatch: Justice Week

Justice Week
An ‘overwhelming majority’ of the public thinks that ‘justice’ is ‘as important as health or education’, according to a survey released ahead of the first Justice Week (the newly rebranded National Pro Bono week) which kicks off Monday.

According to the survey of over 2,000 people, more than three-quarters agreed that justice was as important as health or education (as reported by the Law Society’s Gazette), and a similar figure agreed that people on low incomes should be able to get free legal advice.

Nearly two-thirds felt uncomfortable at the prospect of dealing with the law themselves if they were accused of a crime. Only 13% thought the state should not have to pay for people’s legal expenses if they were accused of an offence that could land them in prison.

Andrew Walker QC, chair of the Bar, said there was ‘now a gulf between what people expect from our justice system, and what they are getting. We do not leave the ill to treat themselves without expert medical help, so nor should we expect people to deal with legal problems and disputes without expert legal help if they cannot afford it’.

The Law Society, Bar Council and CILEX had decide to create Justice Week as ‘a way of placing justice and the rule of law at the centre stage of public and political discussion’.

You can read the programme for next week’s events here.

Beyond the legal village
Over recent years the justice system seemed to have been ‘turned into a commodity for selling to multinationals and rich foreigners’, wrote Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group in the Times; but for ordinary people it was ‘rationed through cost and other barriers’.

Hynes reckoned that there had been some problems getting the new Justice Week off the ground. The three representative bodies ‘decided — not without some angst — to drop their support’ for the national Pro Bono Week; however the new event now confusingly clashed with global Pro Bono Week and, as Hynes points out, that  ‘risks detracting from the messages of both weeks’.

Hynes reckoned that the ‘difficulties behind the scenes’ might account for why the programme seemed ‘very Londoncentric’. ‘For Justice Week to be a success now and in future years, it will need to reach out beyond the legal village of the capital to engage with the wider public,’ he said.

Just to add to the general confusion, the Bar Pro Bono Unit chose the launch of launch of global Pro Bono Week to reveal its new name: ‘Advocate’. ‘Our previous name – which used legal Latin – was not user-friendly for most of the people coming to us for help,’ said Jess Campbell, the group’s chief executive.

However just because there is no national Pro Bono Week doesn’t mean the same old arguments aren’t going to be rehashed. A compulsory levy on big City firms was ‘not in the spirit of what pro bono means’, the solicitor-general Robert Buckland QC told the Gazette. Pro bono came naturally to lawyers and he was ‘not persuaded’ the levy – mooted by former lord chancellor Michael Gove – was the right way forward. The idea of a levy was floated (and dismissed) in 1994 and must have been debated at every pro bono week since it started in 2001.

Edward Fennel in a diary piece for the paper’s law pages, called the topics for discussion ‘a cry of pain from a wounded profession – ‘Justice cuts: The stories behind the numbers’ and ‘How can we maintain public faith in the criminal justice system?’ Bleak.’

Tweet of the week

A classic David and Goliath battle
The families of five men killed by a wall collapsing at a recycling plant have been denied legal aid for the inquest, reported Emily Dugan for BuzzFeed News.

The men were crushed to death at Hawkeswood Metal in Birmingham under a pile of concrete bricks and scrap metal on the morning of July 7, 2016. ‘Their surviving families, who are from Gambia and Senegal, applied for public funding for a lawyer to represent them at the inquest,’ Dugan wrote. ‘They were turned down for legal aid despite meeting the means test and not speaking English. Now they have resorted to crowdfunding their legal fees.’

Imran Khan was representing the families ‘despite no guarantee of payment given the lack of legal aid’ , called it ‘a classic David and Goliath battle’. ‘It’s a shocking case. Just purely from a humanitarian and compassionate point of view, these individuals have got to be represented. These individuals do not speak English and they would not be able to have any effective participation in the proceedings,’ he said.

The Guardian published a powerful letter from Deborah Coles of Inquest, Dr Sara Ryan, mother of Connor Sparrowhawk, Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg and other families on the ‘obscene power imbalance’ between the bereaved who fight tooth and nail for legal aid and state bodies granted automatic funding.

‘At a time of traumatic upheaval, families face insensitive and often adversarial processes. They find themselves pitted against legal teams representing state agencies and private providers, keen to shift responsibility for a death on to others, including the family. To have any chance of funding, families must jump through multiple hoops, answering extensive personal questions about themselves and wider family. Some are lucky to get legal aid, but many do not or face paying large sums towards legal costs. Some families are forced to represent themselves in complicated legal hearings while others resort to crowdfunding for their lawyers’ fees. Without funded representation, families are denied their voice and any meaningful role.’

The clock is ticking
Chris Henley QC, Criminal Bar Association chair, in his Monday message email bulletin offered two ‘appalling examples of utterly inadequate remuneration’ under the new Advocate Graduated Fee Scheme scheme.

The first was ‘an allegation of large scale conspiracy to produce and supply fraudulent documents to support bogus visa and passport applications, council tax exemptions etc’. The trial estimate was eight weeks, the indictment contained 27 counts, there were 15 defendants, and the prosecution was represented by a QC and junior. The pages of prosecution evidence ran to 4000 pages. ‘Defence counsel’s brief fee is £650, with refreshers of £325,’ Henley wrote. ‘Under the previous scheme the brief fee would have been about £4500.’ The barrister who received the instruction ‘understandably, with apologies, explained that he was unable to accept the case at these fee levels’.

In the second example, a barrister was sent the brief to defend an allegation of assisting an offender, to be tried alongside defendants charged with murder. The trial would last several weeks and the pages of evidence would run into the thousands. The brief fee was £550 with £300 refreshers.

‘There may be advocates who will take such serious cases at these rates,’ Henley wrote. ‘Some of us will feel professionally obliged to; serious and complicated cases with the prospect of long prison sentences certainly require experienced counsel. The only tenable solution to the current crisis is substantial investment in AGFS, and an overhaul of the fee structure. The clock is ticking…’

Henley also referred to the response from a judge on being told by a barrister, who was a mum with young children, about the increasingly unreasonable demands placed on her and her colleagues. ‘The judge apparently responded that counsel are expected to work evenings, weekends and lunches if required,’ she related.

‘No we are not,’ Henley said. ‘Judges do not work for free, and whilst we will continue to work hard, no longer can we be expected to work without limit, and with no regard for our wellbeing, or to the other demands on our time. Some realistic lines need to be drawn.’

Picking up on Henley’s Monday message, Monidipa Fouzder in the Gazette acknowledged that there would be occasions when lawyers might have to do some work ‘out of hours’, leave the office a little later than expected or respond to an email before bedtime. ‘But no one should be scared to say ‘no’ if unreasonable demands are made of them – you’ll have a whole army, led by me, backing you,’ she wrote.

ATLEU (the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit) has opened a Sheffield office. More details here. ‘We are thrilled to begin our award winning practice in the north of England,’ said ATLEU. ‘We have long recognised the difficulties that victims of trafficking experience in getting legal representation around the country. We want to thank those who have helped us to get this far.’

UCL’s Integrated Legal Advice Clinic has been awarded a legal aid contract in the categories of housing law and community care law. The Clinic is run by UCL’s Centre for Access to Justice.


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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