JusticeWatch: Untold damage

Judge crowdfunds whistleblowing case
The first judge to take a whistleblowing appeal to the supreme court launched a crowdfunding campaign to test the employment rights of judges, reported Owen Bowcott in the Guardian.

Apparently, Claire Gilham, a district judge at Warrington county court, raised concerns about ‘overwork, death threats and bullying, as well as austerity’ leading to more violent, unrepresented claimants in courtrooms.

‘She is trying to overturn an employment tribunal ruling that judges cannot be classed as workers. Without that status, judges, as well as clerics and other so-called office holders, are not entitled to the legal protections granted to whistleblowers to make disclosures in the public interest,’ Bowcott reported.

The case was so expensive that Gilham had ‘mortgaged her home to pay for legal bills’. ‘It’s a test of whether judges really enjoy protection or whether the [whistleblowing] exemption exists primarily to protect the administration,’ she said.

It was reported that Gilham refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would have allowed her to retire but prevented her from speaking out. ‘I have received support from other judges privately,’ she said, ‘but they are under pressure to keep quiet.’ During her time on the bench, she dealt with domestic violence and drugs cases, and was warned by police that ‘someone had a settled intention to kill me’.

Disclosure review
‘Untold damage’ had been caused by disclosure failings, according to the Attorney General’s review published yesterday as reported in the Justice Gap. Geoffrey Cox QC said: ‘For too long, disclosure has been seen as an administrative add on rather than fundamental pillar of our justice system. This ends now.’

The review noted that involving defence lawyers at the pre-charge stage could ‘identify reasonable lines of inquiry pointing away from the suspect to be taken into account when considering a charging decision’. ‘This would allow for the identification of undermining material at the outset of the investigation, meaning weak cases could be finalised at an early stage,’ it said. However the Attorney General pointed out that legal aid for police station work was ‘not designed for a large amount of pre-charge work’ by the defence after the initial police station interview. ‘If a more formal pre-charge engagement model is created, then the Ministry of Justice should review how such work is remunerated,’ it added.

Justice in a time of austerity
The public should not be expected to visit dilapidated court buildings, reported The Times’ Brief. Lord Burnett of Maldon, the lord chief justice, said judges and staff have to work in conditions that would not be tolerated elsewhere. He added that the poor state of the buildings was a factor contributing to ‘low levels of morale’ which he viewed ‘with considerable concern’.

Suffolk County Council is looking at cutting £375,000 funding for it Citizens Advice across the county which is a legal aid advice desert. ‘The full council will vote in February whether to pull the funding and Citizens Advice said it is “seriously concerned about the impact” of the proposals on vulnerable people,’ reported the East Anglian Daily Times.

Nearly 22,000 people sought help from Citizens Advice in Suffolk last year for issues including money, benefit, housing, relationship or employment problems.

‘We are seriously concerned about the impact of this proposal on our communities, especially on the most vulnerable,’ said John Ashton, chairman of Sudbury and District Citizens Advice. ‘It would be very difficult to find alternative sources of funding in time to ensure continuity of service. The Suffolk trustees and chief officers will now consider all options for managing a potentially reduced budget, should the decision remain unchanged.

Shortage of experts
The courts were struggling to find experts to give evidence in family cases, particularly those involving child abuse, wrote Frances Gibb in The Times. Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court family division, said that the ‘acute problem’ in finding experts might have been exacerbated by cuts to legal aid fees.

An annual expert witness survey by The Times and Bond Solon found that half of those who replied did not do legal aid work and, of those who did, 72% said that they would stop if fees were reduced again. Nearly a third had considered stopping work as an expert witness in the past 12 months. ‘One must remember that expert witness work is for most experts a secondary source of income,’ said Mark Solon, a solicitor and director of Bond Solon. ‘If the expert’s fees are too low, experts have to decide whether the case is worth their time.’

Flexible hours pilot
Early and late sittings are going to be piloted in civil and family courts ‘giving people greater access to hearings that can fit around their busy lives’.

According to the court service, people may no longer need to take an entire day off work to attend court and those with caring responsibilities could find it easier to fit in hearings at the beginning or end of a day.

The Law Society’s Gazette pointed out that flexible hours would not be piloted in criminal courts ‘after a backlash to the idea when it was floated – and subsequently postponed – last year’.

 

LAPG news
Chris Minnoch, LAPG operations director since 2016, is to take over from Carol Storer as the group’s CEO later this month. Kate Pasfield, head of housing and community care at Swain & Co, will join as the new director of strategy.

‘Chris and Kate will give us the ideal combination of continuity and change, which will enable us to build on the sterling work that Carol Storer OBE has done for the past 10 years,’ said LAPG co-chairs Jenny Beck and Nicola Mackintosh QC. ‘Much of LAPG’s energy next year will be focused on the government’s post-implementation review of LASPO. We are already planning how we will respond to the review, as it is imperative our members’ voices are heard. They know better than anyone the damage that LASPO has caused to access to justice.’

Kate, whose background is an advising the Nfp sector and private practice, said: ‘I have worked at the legal aid coalface for 17 years, and felt the role at LAPG would enable me to use the experience I have gained working as a legal aid practitioner for the greater good.’

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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