JusticeWatch: Toppling the fourth pillar

No level playing field
Scotland Yard and other state bodies spent ‘almost half a million pounds in public money’ on lawyers at the Westminster terrorist attack inquest while victims’ families were denied legal aid, reported The Times.

‘Government agencies spent a total of £493,000 on legal fees whereas the families of the victims had to rely on pro bono assistance or private funding to seek answers to questions about how their relatives died,’ it reported. Apparently, the Met spent £207,051.11 on lawyers according to figures obtained under freedom of information laws.

The family of PC Keith Palmer, who was murdered while defending Westminster from an armed terrorist, were denied legal aid. His sisters expressed their ‘utter shock and disbelief’ that the state spent almost half a million pounds in taxpayers’ money. ‘It sends a clear message that the victims’ families’ quests for answers into the deaths of their loved ones is just not important. Protecting the establishment is far more important,’ they told The Times.

The Law Society’s Gazette reported that in 2017 the MoJ spent £4.2m on legal representation for the prison and probation service ‘while grieving families received £92,000 through the Legal Aid Agency’s exceptional funding scheme’.

Inquest told then Gazette that £4.2m was ‘a partial figure of the total spent on representing state and corporate bodies at inquests’ as private prison and healthcare providers, NHS and other agencies were often separately represented.

‘These are truly shocking figures and it’s no wonder that families feel that the system is stacked against them,’ said Rebecca Roberts, Inquest’s head of policy. ‘The MoJ must act now to introduce fair legal funding for bereaved families to ensure a level playing field at inquests.’

Toppling the fourth pillar
‘Over the last four decades, Hackney Community Law Centre has enjoyed a pretty good relationship with its council,’ I wrote for the New Law Journal. That changed last month after its cabinet voted through a swingeing 45% cut in its £203,000 grant.

The law centre’s manager Sean Canning pointed out that publicly funded legal advice was ‘the fourth pillar of the welfare state’. ‘We are deeply shocked and puzzled that this council should be hitting today’s custodians of that achievement of access to justice for the poor and vulnerable,’ he said.

Hackney’s local advice sector is to be reconfigured following a two-year review by the council and the introduction of (as a paper presented to its council cabinet terms it) ‘a systems-thinking methodology’.

‘Curiously, the systems-based approach from Hackney Council belongs to a pre-LASPO era,’ I noted. The so called ‘Vanguard method’ cited by the council dates back to a 2007 report by AdviceUK. The whole point of AdviceUK’s report was to identify ‘an alternative to the government’s untested top-down prescription’ of [New Labour’s] CLACs (Community Legal Advice Centre) experiment. ‘It is depressing to see it dusted down and recycled to justify slashing vital funding from a much-cherished law centre that has been at the heart of its community for four decades,’ I argued.

Rough trade
British companies would suffer from a failing criminal justice system as international businesses headed elsewhere, according to Lady Justice Hallett, the vice-president of the criminal division of the Court of Appeal as reported in The Times’ Brief. ‘For many years those of us who practised in crime were considered the rough end of the trade,’ said Hallett. ‘But without us the UK could not boast of the quality of its justice system.’

Also, the Brief reported that one in 15 junior solicitors was suicidal. ‘More than 6 per cent of junior solicitors experienced suicidal thoughts within the past month,’ it said. ‘… The survey found that nearly half of respondents said they had suffered from mental ill-health in the past month – a rise of 10 per cent in a year. But only about 20 per cent of those who said they were suffering from mental health issues said that their employers were aware of their predicament.’



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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