JusticeWatch: Death by a thousand cuts

Perverse incentives
Conviction targets may be behind the decline in rape prosecutions which are at their lowest since 2008 – as revealed by freelance journalist Melanie Newman in an investigation for the Law Society Gazette. The CPS code of practice states that offenders must be charged if a conviction is in the public interest and is realistic, or more than 50% likely to be successful; however it was discovered that targets had been deployed in prosecuting rape cases since 2016 (as reported by Samantha Dulieu on the Justice Gap here).

At that point prosecutors were advised to consider a conviction rate target of 60% following a charge of rape. Speaking on BBC Newsnight earlier this week, the Centre for Women’s Justice director Harriet Wistrich said: ‘A change in the conviction rate would suggest if they’re being targeted to improve their convictions, the easiest way to do that is to take weaker cases out of the system.’

In a letter threatening legal action of June this year the group claimed that the CPS had covertly changed its policy and practice in relation to decision-making on rape cases. 

Death by a thousand cuts
‘We are civil servants without benefits,’ Shaun Murphy, senior partner of Edwards Duthie Shamash, told Grania Langdon-Down in a feature for the Gazette on the impact of the LASPO cuts headlined Death by a thousand cuts. ‘If we were running the business just for profit we would have stopped doing legal aid,’ said Elspeth Thomson, managing partner of north-east practice David Gray. ‘You wouldn’t go into the Dragons’ Den and say “hey, guys, I have a brilliant business idea – let’s set up a legal aid firm”. We do it because it is a choice we have made that it is the right thing to do.’

‘In the government’s desperate quest to save money we are in danger of destroying the rule of law. I know that sounds dramatic but it is not an exaggeration.’
Carol Storer, Legal Action Group

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon recently promised a £20m fund to create a ‘golden era’ of law centres. However, Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, told Langdon-Down: ‘We are not holding our breath. We seriously welcome Labour’s announcement. But the whole legal aid system needs to be redesigned to help the person not the problem. Providing legal aid to delay an eviction without resolving the triggers – whether they are a relationship breakdown, job loss or an issue with universal credit – doesn’t provide value for money for the government.’

Mondipa Fouzder, also in the Gazette, reported that the Legal Aid Practitioners Group had received over 400 responses to a survey on the quality of decision-making by the agency. ‘From the examples given to us by members, we’re concerned that LAA caseworkers don’t appear to understand their own rules, make arbitrary or unlawful decisions, sometimes don’t act unless threatened with judicial review, make inconsistent decisions on the same set of facts, and the appeal processes don’t appear to be operating properly,’ the group’s chief exec Chris Minnoch told the Gazette.

Remembering Ian Macdonald QC
He was the founder and father of immigration law in this country,’ wrote Colin Yeo in his obituary of Ian Macdonald QC who (as Yeo put it) ‘literally wrote the book’ on the subject when in 1983 he published the first edition of the now legendary Macdonald’s Immigration Law & Practice. Macdonald was ‘one of the great radical lawyers who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, along with legends including Stephen Sedley, Geoffrey Robertson, Helena Kennedy and Michael Mansfield’.

‘One of the lasting legacies of that generation’ was Garden Court Chambers where he was joint head of chambers for many years. ‘There has been an outpouring of grief and some lovely anecdotes behind the scenes at Garden Court. There was iron in Ian’s soul, and fire, but he was gentle and generous as well.’

A touching tribute plus a great video of  a young Ian Macdonald talking about the Mangrove Nine case. Read it on the Free Movement blog here.

All time low
The number of offenders passing through the criminal justice system in England and Wales has hit its lowest level in nearly 50 years – reported the Guardian (here). There were 1.58m people dealt with by the criminal justice system between July 2018 and June 2019 compared with 1.86m in 1970, according to MoJ.

‘The number of those convicted of criminal offences who were sent straight to jail – 75,800 – was also at its lowest level for a decade, falling to 6.5%,’ the Guardian reported. ‘Prosecutions and out-of-court disposals such as community resolutions, cautions or penalty notices in England and Wales fell 2% in the past year to their lowest level since records began in 1970.’

Boris Johnson’s government is ‘proposing a hard-line approach to crime with plans to build more prison cells and increase sentences for some offenders,’ the article continued. ‘Critics have argued that the proposals go against a wealth of evidence that supports a more rehabilitative-focused approach.’

Project deal
‘Alison Saunders was branded as the worst DPP in living memory. To add insult to injury, she became the first holder of the post not to be awarded a damehood,’ began an interview by Frances Gibb in The Times. However, today Saunders was ‘remarkably upbeat’ as she was now a partner at one of the City law firm Linklaters.

No wonder. As DPP for five years, Saunders was on an annual salary of £214,000. ‘She denies that she is now paid nearly £1 million as rumoured – the firm’s average profit per equity partner is almost £1.7 million,’ Gibb wrote. ‘And it is likely that her annual drawings are not far off £750,000.’ ‘One nice thing is that I no longer am obliged to reveal my earnings,’ she said.

So sensitive was the move that it was given its code name: Project Deal.

As for regrets, Saunders identified out her failure to get over the message that not obtaining a conviction is not an indictment of the system. ‘What always used to infuriate me was every time a jury decided to acquit an individual, that was portrayed as a crisis.’ Saunders accepts that she had an exceptionally bad press, wrote Gibb, but did  not speculate as to why. Was it because she is a woman? ‘I don’t know what was in their minds, but it’s slightly odd.’

Bedroom tax ruling
The highest court in the land has ruled in a favour of a man living with his severely disabled partner challenging the ‘bedroom tax’ and upholding an earlier tribunal finding that his housing benefit should be recalculated without the 14% cut – as reported in the Justice Gap (here). The ruling is expected to restore full housing benefit to at least 155 partners of disabled people who were also subjected to the bedroom tax before rules changed in 2017 – 130  cases  England and Wales and another 25 in Scotland.


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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