JusticeWatch: ‘Dodging the difficult questions’

Political interference
BuzzFeed News reported that three politically sensitive cases challenging the government were refused legal aid after the MoJ became aware of the application including the successful attempt to overturn Chris Grayling’s notorious book ban.

Decisions about legal aid are made by the Legal Aid Agency – ‘a theoretically independent arm of the MoJ’ as Emily Dugan writing for BuzzFeed News put it. Dugan claimed to have seen internal emails from the LAA which show that officials, including those ‘in ministers’ private offices’, had conversations about legal aid applications before being turned down.

‘The emails, marked “OFFICIAL SENSITIVE” reveal ministerial staff contacted the LAA to find out if legal aid had been granted in cases where they were the defendant,’ it said. An internal memo sent among LAA staff in 2014 while Chris Grayling was justice secretary listed three high profile cases with pending applications for legal aid that needed to be briefed on.

The article continues: ‘In one email, an assistant to the chief executive of the LAA writes: “had a call from SoS [Secretary of State’s] office – I’m looking for some urgent advice on whether Barbara Gordon-Jones is receiving any legal aid for a JR she is bringing against the SoS re prison books”.’

Gordon-Jones was serving time for arson at HMP Send and was, BuzzFeed noted, a voracious reader. She wanted to bring a test case against the ban on prisoners receiving books introduced by the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Apparently, legal aid was rejected ‘after a phone call from Chris Grayling’s office and a series of messages between government and the LAA’. ‘Despite the LAA saying the case was not strong enough to merit legal aid, the prisoner won in the High Court after the lawyer took it on pro bono – and the law was overturned,’ BuzzFeed noted.

According to BuzzFeed, the emails suggest that conversations about cases between ministers and the LAA ‘appear commonplace’ despite the agency supposedly being an independent body.

‘Any political interference – or even just the perception of political interference – risks undermining public trust in the LAA,’ said Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary. ‘This will only add to the pressure for the LAA to be replaced by an independent body that operates fully at arm’s length from the government, as recommended by the Labour Party-initiated Bach Review into access to justice.’

A government spokesperson rejected the suggestion of political interference in the legal aid process. ‘In fact, this government made changes under LASPO to increase the independence of the agency and enshrine it in law,’ he said.

Legal aid – and dodging difficult questions
A leader in the Times supported the campaign for legal aid in inquests. ‘Ministers are consulting on whether to change the rules around legal aid for inquests. They should,’ it said.

The newspaper was concerned about the plight of the family of PC Keith Palmer who was stabbed to death after restraining a terrorist outside parliament.

The family’s experience was ‘a sign of a wider problem in the inquests system’. Families are not generally granted legal aid for representation and the rationale is that inquests are ‘supposed to be factfinding missions not trials or disputes’.

The government does help in exceptional cases where there is a public interest in doing so. This was ‘very clearly such a case: it matters to every citizen whether the arrangements for protecting parliament from terror are working as they should’.

‘When government stumps up for lawyers to tell its own side of the story it ought to contribute to the cost of lawyers for the family of the deceased, too. That would make it harder for those in public office to dodge tough questions when they make mistakes. The Met and the coroner should also reflect on what it says about their conduct that the family of a murdered police officer feels so let down by the legal process. An inquest is always hard for a bereaved family, but it does not have to be quite this hard.’

Backdating legal aid
The Government has agreed to allow legal aid certificates to be backdated to the date of application for funding. The decision to amend the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 follows a challenge by Duncan Lewis of a refusal to backdate certificates even where solicitors made a prompt application and where it was necessary to secure access to justice for a client.

‘The Government’s concession that backdating is necessary will help countless people to challenge decisions made by public bodies, such as unlawful removals and unlawful detentions by the Home Office, and the failure of local authorities to provide accommodation for people at risk of being made homeless,’ the firm said. ‘It will avoid strong claims being stifled because of delays in the grant of legal aid. It will also ensure that solicitors can begin work as and when needed to secure the legal rights of their clients.’

Read more: R (Duncan Lewis Solicitors Ltd) v Director of Legal Aid Casework and the Lord Chancellor

Under the wig
‘If you go to any crown court today in London, you’ll find lavatories that are blocked and don’t work, lifts that are broken, carpets that are threadbare, roofs that leak, walls that need painting – they are squalid.’ Bill Clegg QC talked about the state of the justice system (and the loos) to Catherine Baksi over ‘saltimbocca and potatoes washed down with a glass of Chiante’.

In his new book (Under the Wig), he writes that in the 1950s and 60s and even the 1970s, a barrister ‘could afford to buy a townhouse in the better parts of London such as Chelsea or Putney’. ‘Nowadays they will be lucky to afford a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of the capital,’ he added.

The barrister has not done legal aid work for several years ‘because he says he would be forced to provide a “substandard service”’. He represented Barry George in his retrial after being wrongly convicted of murdering the TV presenter Jill Dando. ‘If Barry’s solicitors had come to my now I would not be prepared to act in his case; the experts that I instructed would likewise refuse to act,’ he said. ‘If Barry George were re-tried now, would he get justice?’

In response to the barristers’ ‘dinner party question’: how can you defend someone guilty of murder? Clegg said that that his greater difficulty was defending someone whom he suspects is not guilty. ‘The thought that an innocent man may be incarcerated for the rest of his life because I have failed to expose the weakness in the case against him means I don’t sleep at all well at night,’ he said. ‘It is a worry that gnaws.’

Legal history in the Supreme Court
Legal history was made tomorrow this week when the UK’s highest court sat with a majority of female justices for the first time – see the Times’ Brief. ‘The ground-breaking sitting was made possible with the swearing in of Lady Arden yesterday, the third female judge in the 12-strong UK Supreme Court. The proceedings were live-streamed and available on YouTube,’ it reported.



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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