JusticeWatch: the downward spiral

Magna Carta dayMagna Carta day
First things, first… Monday is Magna Carta day organised by the Justice Alliance. Details of a protest near you HERE

Unhappy families
‘As a family law solicitor with 35 years’ experience, I am becoming increasingly dispirited by the wholesale dismemberment of our civil justice system by the government,’ began Gerald A Cumming, of Cumming & Riley in Essex in a letter to the Law Society Gazette.

Meltdown in the family courts was a theme of stories on www.legalvoice.org.uk this week, read HERE, HERE and HERE.

Cumming cited by way of a ‘typical example’ a young father seeking contact with his young daughter. ‘The child’s mother has been denying him contact and had made an allegation of sexual abuse against him which resulted in him being prosecuted. He was acquitted at trial but the mother is refusing to allow him any contact with the child. He is unemployed and in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance.’ ‘How can it be proper or fair that a young man is denied any legal representation in circumstances where he is very unlikely to obtain contact with his child without proper representation?’ the lawyer asked. Shocking.

Downward spiral
The number of employment tribunal claims fell by around 80% for a second quarter following the introduction of court fees. MoJ stats showed that the number of claims received in October to December 2013 was 9,801 – 79% fewer than in the same period of 2012, and down 75% on the period July to September 2013. Sex discrimination claims have dropped by 77% compared to the same period in 2012 and by 82% compared to the previous quarter. ‘This downward spiral in the number of employment tribunal cases shows only too clearly that workers are being priced out of a fair hearing,’ said Dave Prentis, UNISON’s general secretary.

Meanwhile, Judge Robert Martin, the outgoing president of the social entitlement chamber dealing with benefits tribunals, reported that the work capability assessment (WCA) process had virtually collapsed as the DWP went into a welfare reform induced meltdown.

The judge was writing his final article before retiring, in the April edition of the Judicial Information Bulletin, in a manner that ‘might be regarded as astonishingly forthright’ in a serving tribunal president.

‘Judge Martin tries to get to the bottom of why the tribunal service went from its highest ever number of cases heard in a month – over 50,000 – in July 2013, to a record low of just 8,775 in March 2014. He makes it clear that he blames the DWP for the difficulties caused by this wild fluctuation in workload.’

The judge appeared to be ‘particularly angry’ because the tribunals service had taken on a large number of new staff after the DWP predicted a prolonged period of extra appeals. Judge Martin was in ‘no doubt that the biggest single cause of the drop’ in appeal numbers was ‘a huge reduction in the number of WCAs being carried out’.

‘The virtual collapse of the WCA process is the biggest single factor in the decline of the appeals intake.’
Judge Martin

Grayling’s gamble
‘Justice secretary Chris Grayling can’t say he wasn’t warned (by just about everybody) of the dangers of handing up to 70% of probation work to private companies,’ began an article in Private Eye (Grayling’s gamble) reporting ‘chaos’ is only one week into the governments rehabilitation revolution.

 ‘At the beginning of June, 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) took over the supervision of low-to-medium risk offenders, while dangerous high-risk offenders remain with the national probation service. The companies set up to be worth just £1 – and owned temporarily by Grayling himself– are run and staffed by the public sector so the MoJ can honour its promise not to proceed with the full sell-off until “it is safe to do so”. But the meltdown is such that insiders suggest there is no chance contracts can be awarded to those bidding for the new companies in October as planned.’

Apparently, ‘offenders were being allocated to supervisors in the wrong risk group; computer and re-allocation problems have meant staff can’t access cases; probation officers who specialise in high risk cases have found themselves allocated to one of the new low risk companies; and work is being duplicated in the CRCs and national service’. Apparently the situation is so dire that staff have been ‘voting with their feet’ and the MoJ is currently on a recruitment drive – in New Zealand.

Remember the justice secretary explained his opposition to legal aid for prisoners as ‘ideological‘? Apparently, his feelings towards those doughty campaigners Howard League for Prison Reform might be a tad more personal.

Apparently the mere mention of the Howard League is enough to ‘make the justice secretary’s blood boil,’ reported Politics.co.uk. Grayling had ‘dug in his heels’ on the prisoner book ban; rejected an investigation into rape in prison ‘when he found out the Howard League was behind it’; and he was even said to have ‘stormed out’ of an event when the group was praised.

It was reported that the MoJ had now refused to reveal how often the group had been mentioned in its internal correspondence.

‘Grayling’s department has now pulled down the blinds. He competes only with Iain Duncan Smith for closing down opposing voices and evidence. The opaque nature of the department is problem enough in itself. But what’s really concerning is that we still don’t know how severely Grayling’s hatred of the Howard League is affecting his ability to do his job.’
Ian Dunt, Politics.co.uk

Be flexible
‘If it had not been for legal aid, I am not sure whether I could have become a barrister,’ Cherie Blair QC told law students. She advised Open University students to ‘be flexible’. Blair, of Matrix Chambers, told Open University law students about her background, saying that she came from a single parent family, and that her mother had left school at 14 and was the sole provider for their family.

Blair also flagged up ‘Justice Manby’s (sic) recent halt of a child custody trial due to the father not being able to access legal aid and being unable to represent himself’. ‘In some county courts now, if you do not have an urgent family matter, you may as well go away and sit in a corner. You are not going to get a trial because of the litigants in person clogging up the courts.’ ‘If anyone suggested that we stopped access to the NHS or that you could only have a certain operation if you were very poor or very rich…  people would be up in arms,’ said Blair.

‘If you want a quick induction into the problems facing London, spend a few days in a busy magistrates’ court,’ wrote Amelia Gentleman in a long and powerful feature in the Guardian. ‘… The cases tell you about the things we prize and want to steal (mobile phones), the modern methods we use to hurt people (texting offensive messages), and the more timeless ones (biting police officers).’

It was a pretty dismal picture. ‘You see how the law struggles to help people with mental health problems, who have become abusive and violent, but who are really just very ill,’ Gentleman reflected.

Most of the defence lawyers are ‘duty solicitors’ but it was ‘remarkable’ how well they defended their clients. The journalist spoke to solicitor David Forbes about  legal aid cuts and the exodus of lawyers from criminal defence work.

‘Inevitably, it will be the best people who will go. Those left will be people such as myself, nearing the end of their working lives, and the newly qualified and inexperienced who do not yet have a proven track record. The consequence will be increasing numbers of unrepresented defendants and ultimately the closure by larger firms of their criminal departments and closure of specialist criminal practices altogether. How long this process will take is anybody’s guess.’

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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