JusticeWatch: ‘Not a time for dignified silence’

That time of year again
National Pro Bono Week provided the annual opportunity to revisit some fairly well worn arguments. Pro bono ‘must never be viewed as a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system,’ said Robert Bourns, Law Society president. Such concerns can be  overstated – does anyone think the government gave two stuffs about pro bono when they introduced LASPO? Maybe Bourns was mindful of Michael Gove’s first speech as justice secretary last year when he made the case for a levy compelling commercial firms to chip in.

Despite the fact idea that seemed to have been kicked into touch (see LegalVoice here) it didn’t stop a heated debate breaking out this week. The Law Society’s Gazette reported ‘City hostility’ to the idea of a ‘Robin Hood tax’. Hogan Lovells chair Nicholas Cheffings robustly dismissed the notion that solicitors should ‘let the system fail’ to demonstrate the impact of LASPO cuts as ‘fantastical’ and a ‘reprehensible line of action’ for a lawyer to take.

John Nicholson, chair of the new Greater Manchester Law Centre, recently made a compelling case for a voluntary levy in an interview with LegalVoice in June. ‘We have been saying for a while lawyers should put their hands in their pockets and give something towards pro bono or law centre type work,’ he said.

The law centre has written to lawyers asking them to pitch in 0.5% of their monthly earnings through a ‘Lawyer Fund Generation Scheme’. This works out as £12,50 a month for lawyers earning £30,000. You can read an article about the new law centre here.

Meanwhile the Times’s brief newsletter talked of ‘forced pro bono’. Solicitors were ‘clocking up many hours of “involuntary” free work for clients who run out of money to pay their fees’ post-LASPO. Apparently Chancery Lane is to launch a survey of the profession to assess ‘just how much unofficial and unrecorded pro bono work is done on behalf of clients who are unable to finance their cases before a matter is completed’.

Not a time for dignified silence
Inevitably, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, at a breakfast meeting to mark the start of National Pro Bono Week, was drawn into the controversy over his boss’s perceived failure to adequately defend the judiciary after last week’s press onslaught following the article 50 ruling. Over the weekend, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Judge snappily described Liz Truss’s late and anodyne response as ‘a little too late – and quite a lot too little’. As the Guardian pointed out Nigel Farage was planning to lead a 100,000-strong march on the supreme court on the day of the Brexit appeal.

‘The claimants in this and every other case are entitled to bring their case and to have it heard by the court and are entitled to do so without being harassed or intimidated,’ Wright said. ‘The judges in this case are entitled to decide this case in any way they choose in accordance with their judgment. I’m sure they would accept they are unlikely to decide so without criticism. But the principles [of the rule of law] remain critical in cases as big and fundamental as this one.’

‘I can and do defend those principles at the same time that I disagree respectfully with the court. But the good news is that there’s a mechanism to allow those who disagree. It’s called an appeal and we will make use of that mechanism.’
Jeremy Wright

Francis FitzGibbon QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, nailed the inadequacy of the responses of Wright, Liz Truss and Theresa May. The silk argued that they failed to do what they ought to do and ‘unreservedly condemn’ the calling of judges ‘enemies of the people’ and turning their ‘blameless personal lives into objects of reproach’. ‘Standing by and saying nothing’ was likely to be seen as ‘tacit approval for what has gone on, and encouragement for more of the same’, he reckoned.

‘In these disturbed times, dignified silence doesn’t work because there are too many people who will see it as a green light.’
Francis FitzGibbon

The judiciary is a pillar of our constitution,’ wrote Lord Falconer QC in the Guardian. ‘Allow faith in the judges to be eroded and that pillar is eroded at a huge cost to our freedoms.’ Truss’s silence fed the sense that the government was ‘either hopeless at avoiding conflict or couldn’t care less about the constitution’, he argued.

Fans of irony might pause to reflect on the fact that Charlie Falconer tried to scrap the position of Lord Chancellor altogether in his botched attempt to reform the 1,400 year old post, as I pointed out in the New Law Journal.

Computer still says no…
Private Eye this week had fun with the news that the Legal Aid Agency has nominated its IT team – responsible for the ‘utter shambles’ of its CCMS online processing system – for a civil service award to recognise ‘inspirational individuals and innovative projects’.

The already big gaps in legal aid provision as a result of the LASPO cuts were ‘in danger of getting bigger thanks to the LAA’s useless computer system’, the Eye noted.

‘What used to take half an hour on paper can now take anything up to two hours,’ it continued. ‘Adding insult to injury the hours lawyers waste operating CCMS count as administrative work and won’t be paid even when the system itself is creating problems’.

Apparently the LAA claims its ‘digital capability’ team has ‘delivered a value for money and has enabled the agency to deliver a better service to the legal aid providers’. ‘Not in the real world it hasn’t’, added the Eye.

Plugging the gap
The Gazette reported that the Bar Council is looking at a 12% increase in practising fees next year in order to plug a ‘very significant’ shortfall in its staff pension scheme. That’s £13 for the lowest earners and a £198 rise for those earning over £240,000 to cover a deficit in its defined benefit scheme of £5.4m.

Legal Futures reported on three solicitors of Telford firm Cooper Rollason who used legal aid money meant to pay for disbursements to cover their firm’s overheads and who were rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The firm closed in 2014.

“I have never woken up at 6am before – and burst into tears’
There was (in the words of the Times’ brief newsletter) ‘palpable expectation’ on Wednesday at the offices of City firm Simmons & Simmons. Liz Truss was on the agenda at a conference to hand out ‘the inspirational women in law award’. Apparently she didn’t hang around. Her minders arranged the arrival so Truss ‘avoided having to deal with any uncomfortable contact with practising lawyers, or — perhaps more importantly — any nasty journalists’ whilst the expectant lawyers were ‘kettled in an ante-room’. ‘Truss doled out the award, made a few remarks and did a flit before any inconvenient questions could be asked,’ the Brief noted.

The first session of the conference – a debate about the treatment of women in the law – was changed to ‘Have women been trumped’. ‘It’s been such an interesting day,” said chair Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. “I have never woken up at 6am before and burst into tears.’




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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