JusticeWatch: A lawyer-free zone

A change is coming
The government has found an extra £23m spending for barristers’ trial fees in serious criminal cases – reported the BBC at the weekend. In April, the MoJ introduced changes to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme. ‘The new system, along with existing concerns, prompted a period of industrial action by some criminal barristers,’ it reported. ‘In an attempt to resolve the issue, the government announced plans to increase spending on the AGFS by £15m in August. Following a consultation, this amount has been increased by a further £8m. Announcing the move, Lord Chancellor David Gauke also pledged to bring forward a 1% increase on all fees to come into effect alongside the new scheme.’

The announcement was made at the Bar council conference at the weekend. Also at the conference Shami Chakrabarti warned law schools that she intended ‘to put the profiteers on fair notice that change is coming’ and that a Labour government would work with the Inns of Court to create a more economical vocational course.

As reported on LegalVoice, Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption was on controversial form. The maverick (as Legal Cheek put it) told delegates that there were some elements of government expenditure were ‘discretionary’ whereas there were others which were ‘fundamental to the whole purpose of government’ which included ‘a functioning system of criminal legal aid’.

Not so a civil scheme though. Other parts of the justice budget really were ‘discretionary, even if the Bar is apt to forget the fact,’ he continued.

‘That includes much (not all) of civil legal aid. Supporting the cost of civil litigation may be desirable in cases where people are too poor to fund it themselves. But it is not fundamental in the way that criminal legal aid is fundamental. However desirable, it has to compete with all the other calls on public funds: health, education, defence, social security and so on.’
Lord Sumption

Professor Mark Elliot, a professor at public law at Cambridge University, took the judge to task. It was important to be clear about the type of argument that Lord Sumption was making, he argued.

‘If Lord Sumption intended to go no further than pointing out, by way of observation, that civil legal aid does not fare well when politicians decide on spending priorities, then it would be hard to object to his analysis,’ he said. It is plain, however, that Lord Sumption’s argument goes much further than this. ‘In particular, it goes beyond empirical observation and amounts to a normative argument. Criminal legal aid falls into the category of matters that are “fundamental to the existence of the state and to our existence as a civil society”. Civil legal aid, according to Lord Sumption, does not.’

It was ‘surprising and disappointing’ to find a Supreme Court Justice advancing such an argument. More here.

Lawyer-free zone
Meanwhile, Sir James Munby said the family courts had ‘suffered a double whammy’ of government reforms. Emily Dugan of BuzzFeed News had got hold of a copy of an ‘excoriating’ speech by the former head of the family court. He described ‘the baleful and, one fears, all too predictable, and indeed actually predicted, effects of LASPO’. Its effect was to make the family court ‘an increasingly lawyer-free zone, with ever-increasing numbers of litigants having to appear unrepresented and without legal advice’. More here.

SRA on ‘wrong side of history’
One would expect the regulatory authority of a professional body to back one of its members when that member is the victim of racist abuse, reckoned the Jewish Chronicle.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority believed differently, it said. Its response to the ‘antisemitic harassment, attacks, threats and abuse’ of the high profile media lawyer Mark Lewis, who represented phone-hacking victims, had been to support those who have targeted him.

The Law Society’s Gazette reported that the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found Lewis acted with a lack of integrity and failed to uphold the confidence the public places in the profession when he ‘wished death’ to his abusers on social media.  He was fined £2,500 and ordered to pay £10,000 costs.

Lewis was charged by the SRA  with sending offensive messages to users on Twitter and Facebook. The tribunal accepted in that case that Lewis, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was on a course of strong medication at the time, had entered into a ‘dream-like state’ and could not remember what he had posted.

‘When neo-Nazis told him they were anticipating his death, he replied with understandable anger. For responding to death threats, the SRA has chosen to punish Mr Lewis,’ the Jewish Chronicle said. ‘To be blunt: the SRA has chosen to punish Mr Lewis for being Jewish. If Mr Lewis was not Jewish, he would not have been the subject of the repeated, numerous and frightening attacks which he has had to endure. By punishing him for responding to a tiny fraction of those attacks, the SRA has shown that it does not believe Jews should be allowed to defend themselves against racism.’

Legal Futures quoted a statement from Lewis: ‘The SRA was faced with a choice between Holocaust denying neo-Nazis and a Jewish lawyer. It chose to side with the neo-Nazis. It is on the wrong side of history. It is the Holocaust revisionists who are celebrating the verdict. That tells you all that you need to know.’

I haven’t told anyone this, but…
Young female barristers have been urged to ‘stand firm in the profession despite a widespread prevalence of sexual harassment at the Bar’, reported Dan Bindman for Legal Futures. In a lecture, Professor Jo Delahunty QC said she believed its existence to be extensive because of the large volume of incidents described privately to her. The report said: ‘As a prominent campaigner on the subject, a large number of women had confided in her, she revealed. “All came with the words ‘I haven’t told anyone this before, but…’.”’ Apparently, the academic ridiculed the results of a freedom of information request of the BSB in 2018 which revealed that there were just two formal sexual harassment complaints in over five years. This was manifestly unrepresentative of the true number of incidents, she suggested.

LiP minefield
The ‘minefield of how judges deal with litigants in person’ was highlighted with a case in which the Court of Appeal criticised how the issue was handled, according to the Law Society’s Gazette.  In Global Corporate Ltd v Hale, appeal judges each said His Honour Judge Matthews had gone ‘too far in showing the court was dealing with both parties fairly, where one had been unrepresented’.

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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