JusticeWatch: the miserable state of criminal justice

Manifestly wrong
If you want to understand where ‘access to justice’ ranks alongside the big policy questions of the day as we approach June 8, I recommended a brief flick through the Conservative manifesto in an article for the New Law Journal.

‘It doesn’t,’ I argued. The words ‘legal aid’ were mentioned once and even then the topic didn’t warrant an entire sentence: ‘We will strengthen legal services regulation and restrict legal aid for unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims against the armed forces.’

‘For the Tories, and (in their view) prospective voters, ‘legal aid’ has become synonymous with abuse,’ I said. ‘The topic is only relevant in the context of tank chasing personal injury lawyers ‘hounding’ the men and women of the military. It is a policy that will only have added to the joy of the Daily Mail already cock-a-hoop with a manifesto that, in its view, managed to both ‘invoke the spirit of Churchill and Thatcher’.

Sir Henry Brooke also cast a weary eye over the Conservative election manifesto and ‘the miserable state of criminal justice’. ‘I cannot believe that an “old-style” Lord Chancellor, such as Lord Hailsham, Lord MacKay or Lord Irvine, would have permitted his party’s General Election Manifesto to say nothing about any of this,’ he wrote.

His blog referenced the ‘Monday message’ from the Criminal Bar Association chair Francis FitzGibbon. ‘This week I heard from an advocate whose Crown Court trial floated for 4 days before being adjourned because there was no judge or jury available,’ it began. ‘In another court, two serious sex offence cases could not go ahead because there were not enough RASSO prosecutors. In another, a broken thermostat turned the building into a sauna, the (outsourced) contractor did not attend, calls to HMCTS didn’t help and the jury had to be sent home, twice. Such a waste of money.’

The barrister was concerned about the court services’ flexible hours pilot under whoch courts could stay open into the evening. ‘The CBA is not about featherbedding its members or interfering with our professional duties to Courts and clients,’ the barrister wrote.

‘We believe that unreasonable hours and conditions for all those who work in the criminal courts do not serve the public interest. How reliable is a verdict reached at 9pm? Do tired and demoralised advocates give a better service than fresh and well-motivated ones?’
Francis FitzGibbon

In Sir Henry’s blog, he quoted a recent speech by Angela Eagle MP in which she recalled an experience on jury service. ‘The jury canteen had to close down because it malfunctioned, the ladies’ toilets malfunctioned, the water machine malfunctioned and the computers malfunctioned, meaning that juries could not even be chosen,’ she said. ‘Despite the fantastic and very patient work of the employees of the court system, the whole thing was a mess, and it was in need of substantial financial investment.’

The MP’s blog elicted a sharp response from a barrister on the North-East circuit. ‘She is of course correct; but what I find really galling is the tone of surprise. Why should the state of our criminal courts, which is hardly a recent development, come as a shock to our elected representatives? Why is nobody looking? Politicians are frequent visitors to hospital wards, but I have never seen a constituency MP visiting any of the courts I frequent. It should not have taken jury service for Ms Eagle to pay a visit to her local Crown Court. The problems are here to be seen, but no one is looking, and when the alarm is raised, no one is listening.’

Happier and easier days
In The Times Brief newsletter, the former criminal law solicitor and author James Morton was reminded of ‘happier and easier days’ in court when, while the jury was out, you would take your file to the clerk of the court for assessment.

‘This was often done on a weight rather than perusal basis. The clerk would handle it and say “£40”. The standard response was: “Oh Gawd, sir, (or ma’am) couldn’t you make it £50?” And you settled for £45 paid in cash, which was what you both intended in the first place. I don’t know when the practice was discontinued. I suppose someone must have been caught slipping lead weights into files.’
James Morton

Under pressure
The Times Brief newsletter reported that one quarter of lawyers at smaller firms were ‘regularly forced to borrow on credit cards to meet day-to-day financial needs’. According to the Brief, the research (commissioned by a financial services consultancy) highlighted ‘the dramatic differences in earnings between high street practitioners and those at the top-tier corporate law firms in England and Wales, where partners can take home more than £1 million a year’.
Of the lawyers surveyed, 30 per cent said they were suffering from financial stress.

Legal Futures ran an interview with Rhona Friedman, co-founder of the first not-for-profit criminal law firm Commons (as featured on LegalVoice here) which opened its doors last month. Friedman stressed that the firm was not ‘anti surplus’ and that not-for-profit did not mean the firm did not aim to work sustainably, build cash reserves, invest – for example, in IT – or expand its area of operations.

‘We are not anti-surplus – that would be entirely silly and we certainly don’t seek to criticise small businesses, or even medium-size or large businesses, in the legal sector who are seeking to make a profit… That [would be] nutty.’
Rhona Friedman

Leigh Day
Over at Leigh Day’s hearing before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal now in its fifth week, a junior solicitor recounted how she accidentally destroyed a critical document the day before investigators were due to inspect files.

Writing for the Law Society’s Gazette, John Hyde reported how Anna Crowther identified the significance of the document after a disclosure request from the Al-Sweady inquiry.

Apparently, she spent seven hours on August bank holiday in 2013 looking for documents and was ‘jumpy’ about the document, a list of detainees held during the Iraq War in 2004. She typed a translation up from notes made in 2007 but admitted a ‘mistake’ in destroying the handwritten version. The Solicitors Regulation Authority argued her error was a breach of professional rules. ‘There was certainly no attempt to conceal my error, I just didn’t realise I had made one at first,’ she said. ‘I didn’t attach any importance to the translation. It was a mistake that could be made by others in my position. It was an error I massively regret – I can’t tell you how much.’


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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