JusticeWatch: ‘We’ve been waiting for doomsday since the millennium’

Barristers… and giant pandas
The bar was ‘officially “on the brink”’, according to a Lexis Nexis report. ‘Rising costs, falling fees, cuts to legal aid and delays to payments are threatening the livelihoods of barristers across England and Wales – or so says a report by information provider Lexis Nexis, which balks at what it sees as misguided optimism,’ wrote Jemma Slingo in the Gazette. ‘How can barristers be so bullish, it asks: doomsday is coming!’

The problem was, she continued, ‘we’ve been waiting for doomsday since the millennium’.

‘For LexisNexis and many other legal commentators, barristers fall into the same category as giant pandas, surviving on a single food stuff and being overly picky about their partners. Barristers need to diversify their practices and join with solicitors to create a new breed of law firm, they argue. If they don’t adapt to the modern age they’ll become extinct. Meanwhile, barristers and pandas carry on much the same as usual.’

A trip into the Gazette archive revealed that commentators had been ‘predicting the demise of the bar for at least 20 years’. Slingo noted ‘happily’ that in 2016 giant pandas were regraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’. ‘Maybe it’s time to take barristers off the endangered species list as well,’ she added.

‘I’ve been there’
’It’s the end of the week at Swindon Crown Court,’ began Tom Seaward for the Swondon Advertiser. ‘A queue of drug dealers – most of them addicts caught selling crack and heroin to undercover police – are in and out the dock. Families crowd into the public waiting area, the air thick with sweat and fear.’

He was there to meet the South Swindon MP who has been the Justice Secretary since July: Robert Buckland. So why, he asks ‘over a flat white’, is justice in crisis? ’I think the word crisis is one that is legitimate to use in particular places and parts of the system. But to automatically use two words together generally I think is wholly wrong.’

He claimed to understand the challenges solicitors and barristers faced. ’I’ve been there,’ he said. I know what it’s like to be a legal aid practitioner. 

‘Can I say it’s ever been great? No, I can’t. Every year I was practising in the noughties there was always some disaster round the corner. In me you’ve probably got the only modern Lord Chancellor with direct legal aid experience and that’s got to count for something.’
Robert Buckland

Tweet of the week

This Doesn’t Look Like Justice
Sitting days in the Crown Court were cut by 15% in the last year alone, according to a report published by the Western Circuit. ‘The effect at a local level is stark: court centres which previously ran three-to-four courts are now running two-to-three courts as standard,’ it continued. ‘Court centres which ran two courts are now running with a single court open for part of the year. Exeter has lost almost 200 days in 3 years – about 25% of sitting days3 – but ‘the workload has not decreased at anywhere near the same percentage’ according to staff.’

‘Despite the MOJ’s claim that waiting times are decreasing, anecdotal evidence has been building up of a chaotic situation on the ground, particularly in smaller court centres, with trials being listed months into the future, trials being vacated at the last minute, and judges and court staff placed under untenable pressure.’
From the report: The consequences of closed courtrooms on the Western Circuit and beyond

Real delays were ‘rocketing’ and the ‘start to finish gap’ – between an alleged offence being committed and end of proceedings in the Crown court – was ‘climbing steeply’. ‘Witnesses in some courts in the South West are now having to wait almost two years after the alleged offence before they give evidence,’ it said. The ‘current listing delay’, time between a first hearing in the Crown court and the date that the case is set down for trial was ‘increasing to unprecedented levels in many courts’. ’Some courts in the South West do not have capacity to hear even short trials until 9 months time.’

‘The problems highlighted by the Western Circuit are by no means confined to one region,’ said the Bar Council. ‘This is a national issue which is fast becoming a national crisis. Currently, crime is rising but courts are sitting empty. We are seeing an increasing time gap from an offence allegedly being committed to the end of the court case. The many months of delay and the false starts in hearing cases, are undermining effective access to justice for all those caught up in the criminal courts.’

‘This trend must be reversed. Investment must be made across the whole of the criminal justice system. With thousands more police and many more CPS prosecutors due to be recruited and, as a result, more crime likely to be detected, investigated and prosecuted, how will the justice system cope when our courts can’t function effectively now?’
Bar Council

Judicial training
A High Court judge said that her colleagues needed training after one ruled that a woman could not have been raped by her partner – as reported by The Times. Ms Justice Russell said that a family judge had made a ‘flawed’ ruling when he said that a victim had not been raped because she did not fight back.

Judge Robin Tolson had been asked to rule last August in relation to access arrangements for the couple’s child, aged four, after they separated. Judge Tolson found in favour of the father’s request for more time but the mother appealed.

Russell criticised Judge Tolson for expressing a view ‘that a complainant must and should physically resist penetration, in order to establish a lack of consent’. She also criticised his noting that after the alleged rape the mother ‘took no immediate action to report the matter to the police, or indeed to anyone else’. ‘Many victims do not do so,’ The Times noted. ‘Police records showed that the mother had reported domestic abuse on several occasions and had to go to live in a refuge in 2016.’

Robbing Peter to pay Paul
Responding to a question from the audience at an event organised by thinktank Politeia about ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul‘, the Law Society president Simon Davis said: ‘It would be an outrageous suggestion in relation to the NHS, and also in relation to the City. A point put to me quite properly on Radio 4 was that people are unhappy when they see people at City firms earning a great deal of money and others aren’t able to access justice, and I said “absolutely”. On the other hand, do bear in mind that the City is the most ferociously competitive place, I would say, in the world.’

Last year, Lady Justice Hallett urged the City to consider funding access to justice for vulnerable people, describing the amount of money needed to improve the publicly funded justice system as ‘tiny’. ‘The same month, figures were released that showed legal and accountancy firms contributed enough to the exchequer in 2018 to fund the legal aid budget 11 times over,’ the Gazette reported. ‘In 2015, then lord chancellor Michael Gove floated the idea of a levy on City law firms to fund legal aid, but this came to nothing.’


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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