JusticeWatch: A question of equality of arms

Equality of arms
Legal aid should be provided for families at inquests in which the government pays for lawyers to represent police officers or other state employees, according to the chief coroner – as reported in the Guardian.

In the wake of the Hillsborough inquest and the resumption of the inquest into the Birmingham pub bombings, Peter Thornton QC has made the case for families to be granted exceptional funding for legal aid.

‘It’s partly a question of equality of arms and also helps the coroner who might otherwise be bending over backwards to help the family and might give the appearance of going too far.’
Peter Thornton QC

‘There’s always been a very good tradition of pro-bono lawyer work,’ Thornton continued. ‘But that’s not always the right way forward. I have also given general advice to coroners when they are [contacted] by a family to support an application for funding.’

Just get on with it
Judges were increasingly failing to alert defendants that they are eligible for legal aid if a prison sentence is likely on conviction, according to the Times’ Brief daily news bulletin.

The report followed news that a 21-year-old man was not represented by a lawyer when he pleaded guilty at Lincoln crown court to two charges of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.

Jonathan Black, the former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said that the case potentially typified a growing trend. ‘Defendants are not being told that they are eligible for legal aid,’ he said, ‘and judges – even crown court judges – are under increasing pressure to conform to case management requirements to simply get on with it.’

The criminal justice system was ‘replete with examples of “everyday” institutional racism’, reckoned LCCSA in the Law Society’s Gazette. They were responding to a government review headed up by David Lammy looking into evidence of possible discrimination against black defendants and other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.

‘If you are a black defendant, especially in the Crown court (and certainly should you reach the Court of Appeal), you can expect white judges, mostly men and often still an all-white courtroom,’ the LCCSA said.

 ‘Imagine if you are white appearing in an all-black courtroom where you believe you have been harshly treated. Later you might read of higher sentences for white people; that white deaths in custody never result in any prosecution. That white youths are disproportionately stopped and searched. You may imagine a lack of equality in the criminal justice processes.’

Citizen violence
Experiencing violence was ‘now a fact of life for child refugees,’ wrote Kirsty Brimelow for the Guardian. ‘Hundreds of children have arrived at the camps in Calais and Dunkirk with no parents or family members to protect them,’ she said. ‘The violence comes from the police, and people outside the camps. There is a name for the latter group who travel to Calais to attack migrants at night – it’s called “citizen violence”.’

The barrister was reporting on the work of the Bar’s human rights committee who had sent a small team of barristers and researchers to the camps at Calais and Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk. It called on Theresa May and François Hollande to set up an independent investigation into police abuse and fund a permanent legal advice centre.

‘Speaking to the under-equipped and overworked staff of the Calais camp’s legal advice centre, we heard about a 16-year-old Iranian boy taken to a field outside the town and forced to kneel in a line with others, before the police beat him repeatedly with truncheons; an Eritrean man who, after complying with a police request to get down from a lorry, was violently attacked and had teargas sprayed in his face; and teargas being used at camp entrances to prevent refugees from leaving, being detonated inside vans or shot at people’s faces from close range, and of hundreds of empty teargas canisters being dumped in a warehouse. Teargas is used more often in the evenings and at weekends.’
Kirsty Brimelow

Coach & horses
The publication last week of the Law Society’s interactive map of legal aid provision for housing advice provided ‘a stark illustration of how little free legal advice’, according to Vicky Pearlman who was writing for the housing charity Shelter’s policy blog.

The LASPO cuts have ‘driven a coach and horses through this publicly-funded advice and turned it into an increasingly crisis-driven approach’, she wrote.

‘But Legal Aid is still available for serious cases of disrepair, possession proceedings and homelessness so why is the number of people getting advice continuing to fall? If the Government decides to take an area of law out of scope for Legal Aid (as it has done with most debt, welfare benefit and disrepair cases, for example), then people with those particular problems will no longer get help. That much is clear. But this is compounded by the impact of other changes to the administration of Legal Aid. The increased cost and bureaucracy, coupled with the reduction in Legal Aid rates paid to solicitors doing the work, make it difficult – if not impossible – to make a high street legal aid practice pay for itself.’
Vicky Pearlman

LegalVoice over the Summer
The site will not be updated between August 22 and September 5. The next JusticeWatch will be on August 19.

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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