Commission on Justice for Wales
Wales should have full control of its justice system with powers to run policing, prisons and appoint its own judges, says an independent commission (as reported by BBC News).
People in Wales are ‘let down by the system in its current state’, concluded the Commission on Justice for Wales. ‘As well as switching funding, including for legal aid, it believes laws applying in Wales should be treated as being distinct from English law,’ the report continued. That would mean devolving powers from the MoJ ‘but it has poured cold water on the idea’.
The commission was chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, former Lord Chief Justice, and has produced 78 different recommendations. ‘The way that responsibilities are split between Westminster and Cardiff has created pointless complexity, confusion and incoherence in justice and policing in Wales,’ said Lord Thomas.
According to a report in The Times, government spending on the justice system for Wales has fallen by a third in real terms since 2010 to £723 million in 2017-18 – ‘a fall that would have been far steeper had it not been for 38% of the total justice budget in Wales being made up by the Welsh government and local councils’.
‘Legal aid is in a considerable mess,’ Thomas told the paper. ‘Wales is different from England demographically. Because there is greater deprivation, it would be much more sensible if the overall budget was directed to where needs are greatest, such as on housing and employment and welfare.’
The impact of civil and family legal aid cuts has been ‘severe’, the report finds. ‘Many who need legal advice are not now able to obtain it and the effect has been worst on the most vulnerable groups in society.’
Inquest legal aid
Half of NHS mental health trusts in England spent over £4 million funding their own legal representation at inquests in 2017-18, according to an investigation by charity Julie’s Mental Health Foundation and INQUEST (as reported by the Justice Gap). This was 34 times the total amount granted in legal aid to families of the deceased for their representation in inquests involving mental health trusts, which was just £118,000. Of the approximately 600 requests for legal aid for inquests last year, almost 50% were refused.
‘The government says that inquests are non-adversarial, so families don’t need legal representation,’ commented Dr Rebecca Montacute, founder of Julie’s Mental Health Foundation. ‘But that is not the experience of families, who can be faced by several different legal teams when they themselves have nothing. It’s a ridiculous system which isn’t fit for purpose.’
Legal aid for asylum seeking children restored
Immigration matters for separated migrant children have officially been brought back into the scope of legal aid – reported the Law Society’s Gazette. ‘The Legal Aid for Separated Children Order 2019 brings non-asylum immigration and citizenship matters into the scope of legal aid for under 18s not in the care of a parent, guardian or legal authority,’ it reported. ‘Previously, they had to apply for exceptional case funding.’
Meanwhile, the Gazette also reported the case of a law firm specialising in family and immigration cases which blamed low legal aid rates for its struggle to find counsel to represent a mother who ended up in prison for disobeying a High Court order (here).
The court gave east London firm NR Legal Solicitors 14 days to explain why the mother, involved in a family dispute with the father of her three children, was not provided with fully qualified legal representation. She had been jailed for four weeks but released after nine days after appealing the committal order.
NR Legal told the Gazette it ‘very much regretted’ the client’s struggle and that it took ‘every step to support her in her feeling of abandonment’. ‘She had approached many firms over a period of the past two years and was unable to secure assistance from anyone. We are glad that we have been able to support her in this difficult time. We are also relieved on her behalf that counsel has now been secured to assist with the client in her case.’
‘While eventually experienced counsel was found to take the case on at the Court of Appeal, that barrister acts pro bono on some occasions and it is wrong, where the liberty of the subject is at stake, for proceedings to be, we suggest, obviously inadequately funded.’
‘Straightforward prejudice’ in Supreme Court
Barristers appearing at the Supreme Court were ‘overwhelmingly men’, according to a report in The Times. Eight of the 48 barristers who have most frequently addressed Britain’s highest court since its inception ten years ago were women. Only two of the top ten were women.
Karon Monaghan QC of Matrix Chambers said that the imbalance reflected gender discrimination at the top of the legal profession. ‘The near absence of women silks will be no surprise to anyone who appears in the Supreme Court,’ she said. ‘The persistent under representation of women is likely to do with straightforward prejudice and stereotyping, and it is self-perpetuating.’
Congratulations to Harriet Wistrich, feminist lawyer and and founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice of Birnberg Peirce who the legal personality of the year award at the Law Society’s Excellence awards and Tamsin Allen of Bindmans LLP who was awarded solicitor of the year for pioneering work successfully defending high-profile whistle-blowers most notably in the Cambridge Analytica and ‘Vote Leave’ cases. The lifetime achievement award went to the former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff for her work as as a human rights lawyer.
All the winners listed here.
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