JusticeWatch: Courts ‘strained to breaking’

Courts ‘strained to breaking’
MPs called for a ‘pause for breath’ on the government’s £1.2bn court modernisation programme as well as an ‘immediate moratorium’ on court closures (as reported on the Justice Gap). In a damning report that described the justice system as in ‘administrative chaos’, the House of Commons’ justice committee warned that the proposed reforms risked denying vulnerable people access to justice.

The overhaul of the courts is being led by the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary and aims to introduce greater IT, digitising court, increasingly relying on video hearings alongside a controversial programme of court closures.

‘We understand that courts and tribunals are strained to breaking, with systems that ever more people are having to try to navigate for themselves,’ commented committee chair Bob Neill MP. ‘Court staff and the judiciary are trying hard to improve services in the face of underfunding and cuts. But we are concerned that a vulnerable person – a victim of crime, a woman seeking an order to protect her children, a person with learning difficulties – could be left trying to negotiate enough time at a library to file papers or tune in to an evidence hearing where they are trying to get justice.’

‘We understand and support the principle that modernisation is overdue. But we ask the Government to pause for breath to make sure that everyone of us who needs the court system –   to manage a divorce, to seek fair payment, or to get through family cases and criminal cases –  must be able to get to court, to access justice, where and when they need to.’
Bob Neill MP, House of Commons’ justice committee

MPs reported ‘powerful evidence’ of a court system in ‘administrative chaos’ as well as ‘the harmful impact’ of staff cuts on victims, witnesses, lawyers, litigants and defendants. ‘Staff shortages in many courts are so serious that they may undermine access to justice and threaten to compromise the fairness of proceedings,’ they wrote.

The report called for a halt to planned and deeper cuts for court workers. Courts workers were ‘clearly overworked and under-remunerated’, the report stated; adding that the committee was ‘deeply concerned’ by the court services’s ‘over-reliance’ on agency staff and called on it to address ‘problems of remuneration, workload and morale as a matter of urgency’.

In evidence to the committee, Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett described the ‘dilapidated and uncomfortable’ court buildings’ as ‘frankly an embarrassment’. The committee took issue with the court service’s rationale for selecting courts for closure through a travel benchmark. ‘No user should be expected to leave home earlier than 8.00 am or return home later than 6 pm and, where necessary, courts and tribunals should be willing to adapt their sitting times to accommodate this,’ it said.

MPs reported that the impact of the legal cuts was flagged ‘time and again’ by witnesses. ‘Many argued that the impact of restrictions imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 and the related phenomenon of “advice deserts” could not be ignored when considering the impact of the reforms and individuals’ access to the court and tribunal system,’ the report said.

‘Policy by press notice’
It was a busy week for the justice committee which also reported that the prison system was in an ‘appalling’ state of crisis – see the Guardian here. The justice committee condemned Boris Johnson’s ‘policy by press notice’ approach to prisons ‘following a raft of announcements widely seen as electioneering tactics’

Too often we have seen what might be called ‘policy by press notice’ without any clear or coherent vision for the future of the prison system. New prison places might be welcome, but they do nothing to improve the appalling condition of much of the current prison estate, nor the prospect of offering a safe environment in which to rehabilitate offenders.’
Bob Neill

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, anticipating ‘a volatile election period’, said: ‘[It] is important that all policy announcements are tempered with the use of evidence – and it starts with this vital report by the justice committee, which lays bare many of the problems in the prison system.’

She accused politicians of too often using plans for prisons for ‘personal political gain’ or to come up with ‘superficial quick-fix answers when, clearly, a more fundamental solution is needed’.

LASPO cut reinstated
Separated migrant children are now entitled to state funded legal support under new regulations which came into effect last week – as reported by Aqsa Hussain for the Justice Gap (here). ‘This is a positive step to make sure we are offering the right support and protection to some of the most vulnerable in our society,’commented Justice minister, Wendy Morton MP. ‘These changes will mean migrant children who have been separated from their carers can access the vital legal support they need faster and more easily.’

Aika Stephenson of the legal charity, Just for Kids Law, said that whilst change was ‘extremely welcome, the government must now commit to ensuring that it reverses other measures in the LASPO Act 2012 so that all children, including care leavers, have access to the legal aid they need to ensure their rights and entitlements are respected.’

Crossing the line
An adoption ruling was overturned after the judge was accused of ‘shouting and storming’ out of the court during a hearing – reported The Times (here). A lawyer and a guardian for the child complained about the behaviour of Judge Najma Mian, who was accused of having crossed the line with her ‘intemperate’ behaviour.

Naomi Hobbs, the barrister who represented the one-year-old girl, appealed against Judge Mian’s ruling that she should be placed in care pending an adoption.The judgment was overturned on the grounds that the judge’s behaviour during the five-day hearing was a breach of procedure. Judge Rogers, who heard the appeal, ruled that Judge Mian had ‘crossed the line.

Hobbs, who was instructed by a guardian who represented the interests of the child, accused Judge Mian of using ‘blasphemous words’, shouting, storming out of court, being sarcastic and ‘shaking with rage’. The barrister also accused Judge Mian of sitting with her back to the court during the first hearing and then ‘mimicking the advocate’s words and intimidating the guardian’.

Meanwhile the Advocate General for Scotland and justice spokesman in the House of Lords, Lord Keen of Elie QC, was cleared of professional misconduct by a tribunal following a conviction for a firearms offence (as reported on www.scottishlegalcom here).

Richard Keen appeared at a Bar Tribunals and Adjudication Service hearing over allegations he had brought the profession into disrepute. He was fined £1,000 in 2017 after pleading guilty, by letter, to breaching s.2 of the Firearms Act 1968 after failing to secure his shotgun. Officers found a 12 bore Stephen Grant shotgun in Lord Keen’s basement, which had been left out of its secure cabinet.

Thrown under a bus
The lawyer who announced the launch of a new gay rights group which has been branded anti-trans had been ‘thrown under the bus by her own law firm’, reported the Pink News. Barrister Allison Bailey of Garden Court Chambers, tweeted the launch of the ‘LGB Alliance’  saying: ‘This is an historic moment for the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual movement…. Spread the word, gender extremism is about to meet its match.’

Garden Court Chambers posted on its website saying it wanted to make it clear ‘that LGB Alliance is not part of Garden Court Chambers nor representative of the views of Chambers’. It was reported that the next day the chambers announced that it would be investigating complaints it had received about Bailey’s comments.


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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