JusticeWatch: Trouble ahead

Taken for granted
The chair of the Bar accused the government of treating the legal profession in a way that ‘borders on contempt’ and rejected the government’s argument about the need for economies in the legal aid scheme. Opening this year’s Bar Conference at the weekend, Andrew Langdon QC said: ‘The independent bar does not accept the validity of those constraints.’

The Law Society’s Gazette reckoned that Langdon’s ‘warmly-received speech’ might have made ‘uncomfortable listening’ for the new chief executive of HMCTS, Susan Acland-Hood. ‘We’re at the limits of what we can do without fundamental change,’ she said; attacking what she called ‘myths’ about the £1bn court reform programme. She said there was no attempt to exclude lawyers from the new online civil court – but that ‘it should be possible to navigate the system without a lawyer’.

She also insisted that the proposed flexible hours would be introduced only if the delayed pilot proves a success. ‘It is a real pilot. I want to try it. We will not roll out anything that does not work,’ she said.

Sir Henry Brooke told the conference: ‘Legal aid is far too important to be left to the tender mercies of the Treasury and the technicians and the high priests of PR’ (as reported in the Times’ Brief).

The former judge, who is a member of the Bach commission, urged the creation of a justice commission. This would ‘see that justice, in all its emanations, can never again become a Treasury lickspittle’. Sir Henry received a standing ovation. ‘I will be happy to do all I can to help,’ he said.

National pro bono week
In a blog marking  the start of National Pro Bono Week, the Law Society’s head of justice Richard Miller reflected upon how 2017 had been marked by a series of tragedies: a number of terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire (here). ‘The whole country was united in sympathy for those affected by these events, and wanted to do something help,’ Miller wrote. ‘The legal community was no different. Hundreds of lawyers came forward to offer their services pro bono, to help those who had been injured, and those who have lost loved ones, to deal with the legal consequences of what has happened, first in Manchester and then in London.’

Miller pointed out that the local law centre, Citizens Advice and Shelter ‘all worked tirelessly’. ‘This is where pro bono shows one of its major strengths,’ he continued. ‘Without needing to worry about eligibility criteria and bureaucracy, lawyers can get on with the job of providing immediate urgent assistance, and directing people to the sources of the longer term legal support they will need.’

But, Miller went to argue that the extent of the needs was ‘beyond anything pro bono can provide’.

‘If the sources of longer term support do not exist, there will be nowhere for pro bono lawyers to refer people on to, and they won’t get the help they need. Legal aid used to be the bulwark of that longer term support. Now it feels less like a bulwark and more like a rusting hulk, in urgent need of major renovation if it is not to rot away entirely.’
Richard Miller

Immigration enforcement ‘creeping into’ courts
Defendants will have to disclose their nationality to magistrates from next week under powers that human rights groups say will undermine the right to a fair trial – reported the Guardian.

‘The changes to criminal cases are being introduced as part of the government’s drive to deport more foreign criminals,’ reported Owen Bowcott. ‘What relevance does a defendant’s nationality have if they are pleading not guilty? Or if they are accused of a crime which is not imprisonable? The point of the criminal courts is to convict and sanction the guilty, not to act as an arm of the UK Border Agency,’ commented Penelope Gibbs, the director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate.

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: ‘The government is well aware – thanks to David Lammy’s recent report – that racial bias is a serious problem at every level of our criminal justice system. Forcing defendants to reveal where they come from in court can only worsen that discrimination and lead to unfair trials.’

Bowcott also looked at a legal action by the Migrants’ Rights Network, represented by Liberty, to a data-sharing agreement between the Home Office, the Department of Health and the NHS which ‘it is claimed violates patient confidentiality by passing on information about the nationality of those seeking medical treatment’.

‘We are gravely concerned that immigration enforcement is creeping into our public services, especially the NHS,’ said Fizza Qureshi, the director of MRN. ‘And therefore, it is important to challenge this data-sharing agreement, which violates patient confidentiality and discriminates against those who are non-British.’ The action is being funded through CrowdJustice.

Trouble ahead
The Public and Commercial Services Union has threatened to take industrial action if the government axes up to 700 jobs under plans to restructure the way criminal fines are collected. The union said that the court service’s plans were ‘a taste of what will happen’ across the whole of the department as the government forges ahead with IT-based reforms.

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, told the Gazette that the union would ‘produce strong cases against office closures which we expect the employer to listen to and act upon. Failure to do so will give us no alternative but to actively consider all other means to stop the closures including industrial action’.

Seeking favours
Young barristers were vulnerable to sexual harassment in chambers, Baroness Helena Kennedy told The Times. ‘At the Bar, young women and some young men are vulnerable because they are in a highly competitive world seeking training places and tenancies and briefs,’ the barrister and Labour peer said.
‘There are many people who might seek their favours to advance their career. Stories abound and chambers should have clear rules and be swift in ending the tenancies of people who abuse their power,’ Kennedy said. ‘But it is still too hard for women to speak out.’
A 2016 survey of 1,300 female barristers by the Bar Standards Board found that two-fifths of respondents said that they had been subject to sexual harassment but only a fifth went on to report it.

Felicity Gerry, QC said that the problem of harassment had forced some lawyers to leave the profession. ‘We have lost far too many good women who have left the Bar due to discrimination, harassment, bullying and pressure of inflexible administration,’ Gerry said.

The article quoted a speech by Jo Delahunty, QC, a professor of law at Gresham College, describing a client conference she had attended when training for the Bar. ‘When chair space was limited a client offered me his knee to sit on and the only reaction was laughter within the room, including from my pupil supervisor,’ she said.

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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