JusticeWatch: Sacrificing realism for ratings

‘Sacrificing realism for ratings’
Writing for the New Statesman about the Archers treatment of Helen’s relationship with her abusive husband, Natalie Byrom accused the BBC of ‘sacrificing realism for ratings’.

The broadcaster ‘missed an important opportunity to highlight the difficulties facing victims of domestic violence in accessing support when attempting to extricate themselves from violent relationships- difficulties exacerbated by changes to legal aid, which impact disproportionately on those living in rural areas,’ wrote Byrom, who is The Legal Education Foundation’s director of research.

‘In the Archers, Helen is married to Rob and he has taken control of her finances. Were she to require legal aid to assist her in obtaining a divorce from him, she would find herself needing to provide evidence that she was the victim of domestic abuse before she would be eligible to access this support.’
Natalie Byrom

According to Rights of Women, 40% of victims were unable to access evidence that would enable them to receive legal aid. ‘Through enabling listeners to follow Helen as she attempted to access the support she needed to divorce Rob, scriptwriters could have provided vital insight into the difficulties created by the changes to funding for legal advice, an issue that, considering both its importance and relevance to large sections of the population, is woefully under-reported,’ she said.

Unhappy birthday
Lord McNally – the former minister who piloted the dread LASPO through the Lords – joined calls for a review of the legal aid cuts on their three year anniversary. ‘Ideally, such a review could come under the terms of post-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both houses of parliament,’ the Lib Dem peer wrote in the Guardian. ‘Such a committee could ask some of the pertinent questions relating to legal aid, such as what is the right size for the legal aid budget, and could we reach cross-party agreement on such a figure?’

McNally was adding his somewhat qualified support to letter from lawyers and campaigning groups (here) calling for a review.

‘The record in recent years is for the major parties to cut legal aid when in office and to oppose cuts when in opposition. The legal professions could also be asked what specific proposals they have to modernise their structures and end the restrictive practices which mean that the legal aid budget gets less value for the money spent than could otherwise be provided.’
Lord McNally

We can all agree that ‘nobody should be denied access to justice’, the peer argued. ‘Can we get broad-based agreement on how much the taxpayer should fund that noble aspiration and what our priorities should be? Will the legal professions and the courts address their own deficiencies so that the money provided is well spent?’

Never boring
Training as a solicitor in a legal aid firm was ‘far from boring’, Sara Fantoni, a trainee at Lawrence & Co Solicitors in West London assured readers of The Lawyer. Every day brought ‘new challenges and unexpected situations’, she reckoned.

‘When I say unexpected, I really mean it! The concept of risk and of the unpredictable has taken on a whole new meaning for me,’ she continued. ‘At the end of most days, I find myself wanting to say to people who ask me how my day went: “You have no idea of what happened at work today.”’ She recalled a prison visit when the client started shouting at her. ‘I received surprisingly warm solidarity from fellow prison inmates who loudly voiced their support for me and told him to “shut up” and “leave the lady alone”,’ she wrote.

‘Working at a legal aid firm is no doubt incredibly challenging, but it is impossible not to be fascinated and I can confidently say that I never get bored of the work. It has been and continues to be a huge and exciting learning curve – in which I’m learning not only legal skills. I’ve learnt so much about different social and cultural environments. And I’ve learnt about myself. I have discovered abilities I did not know I had and gained some real insight into my fears – and how to overcome them.’
Sara Fantoni

Never crossed his mind
The Law Society’s Gazette reported on Edgar Stephen George Thomas, a sole practitioner struck off for overcharging clients. ‘Thomas, who had been practising for 25 years, accepted that his client care letter was “ridiculous” and that he in fact charged £350 per hour as opposed to the quoted £200 an hour,’ the Gazette reported. ‘He stated that, when he started out, firms charged on the basis of ‘how much a file weighed’ and he based his charges on the work he had done. Asked whether he should have instigated a conversation about costs, he replied: “I should say yes but it never crossed my mind.”’

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found his actions ‘completely abhorrent’. ‘This type of excessive overcharging was simply a disgrace,’ it said.

New director at Liberty
Congratulations to barrister Martha Spurrier who is to succeed Shami Chakrabarti as director of Liberty. Apparently, the 30 year old barrister from Doughty Street chambers ‘shone out in a competitive field as our unanimous choice to lead Liberty into the next phase of its proud history’, according to the group’s chair of Liberty, Frances Butler. ‘She is a compelling and fearless campaigner with energy, gravitas, a first-class mind and a quick wit.’

At a time when the legal aid world appeared to be crumbling around us, ‘one bright spot has been the success of a string of judicial reviews against the cuts. Behind three of these JRs is Martha Spurrier,’ wrote Laura Janes for Legal Action (here).

Low Commission
You can read the latest newsletter from the Low Commission here.

Welcome on board
We are delighted to have Fiona Bawdon joining us as commissioning and comment editor. Fiona – a freelance journalist who writes on criminal and civil justice issues for the national and specialist legal press, co-founder of the LALYs an former editor of Legal Action – is well known in legal aid circles.

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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