JusticeWatch: Inequality of arms

Priti scary
‘We are coming after you,’ threatened Priti Patel last week at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. The ‘you’ being criminals, of course (as opposed to voters in marginal seats). The home secretary, who described herself as a ‘daughter of immigrants’ who needed ‘no lectures from the north London metropolitan liberal elite’, promised a crackdown on immigration and an end to freedom of movement ‘once and for all’. Evoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher (as the Daily Express put it), she reminded the Tory party faithful that law and order ‘central to our DNA as Conservatives’. To that end, she promised £20m on tackling ‘county lines’ drug gangs as well as £10 million to arm police officers with even more Tasers.

In an effort to tackle public concerns that the current sentencing regime was ‘too soft’, justice Secretary Robert Buckland announced new measures at the party conference which would introduce longer prison sentences and alcohol detecting ‘sobriety tags’.

Buckland has promised to ensure that the most dangerous criminals such as sexual predators and the most violent offenders, as well as repeat offenders, serve more time in prison. Under the current sentencing regime, prisoners generally serve half of their sentences and are released ‘on license’ for the second half. Under new proposals, those deemed to be dangerous criminals will serve at least two thirds of their time before being considered for such release. Around 3,000 prisoners would be forced to serve longer sentences if this change came into force (as reported in the Justice Gap).

Gaggle of opportunists
The ‘fundamental flaw’ in Buckland’s new policy was that the most serious offenders were not automatically released at the halfway point of their sentences under the current law anyway, pointed out Secret Barrister. ‘The most serious offenders, those deemed to present a significant risk of serious harm to the public, will usually receive either a life sentence or an extended determinate sentence,’ he explained. ‘With a life sentence, a prisoner will serve a minimum term set by the court before being eligible for parole, and will remain in prison indefinitely until they can convince the parole board that they no longer pose a risk to the public.’

SB pointed out that rape crisis centres were in desperate need of funding, and the government had merely offered £5m of the £195 million needed. Meanwhile, the government reckoned that ‘our already grossly overcrowded and understaffed prisons – hellholes of death, violence and self harm’ would have to find another 3,000 places a year at a cost of £110 million.

‘Any government that is serious about criminal justice would make the real problems in the criminal justice system a priority. But this announcement confirms that we do not have a serious government, just a gaggle of cheap opportunists charting policy based not on evidence, but on the fact-free demagoguery of Boris Johnson’s Telegraph columns.’
Secret Barrister

Inequality of arms
NHS mental health trusts were spending 34 times the total amount granted in legal aid to bereaved families to be represented at inquests, according to figures obtained through a freedom of information request (as reported by the Law Society’s Gazette).

Charity Julie’s Mental Health Foundation asked how much 53 mental health trusts in England spent on lawyers at inquests in the 2017-18 financial year. Responses from 26 trusts revealed that they spent £4m. By contrast, the Legal Aid Agency paid £117,968 towards fees for legal representation for families following the death of a relative in contact with mental health services.

The figures featured in BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 Families v the state: An unfair fight? Dr Rebecca Montacute spoke to the programme about the difficulties her family faced after her mother died.

‘The inquest into my mum’s death found nine failings in her care. I am certain not all of these would have been found without us spending thousands of pounds from our own pocket on a lawyer. This is a failure in the current system. It doesn’t protect future patients, it just allows mental health trusts to protect themselves,’ she said.

File on 4 reported that the LAA granted just £41,265 towards legal fees for families whose relatives died in police custody. Freedom of Information requests made by the programme revealed that 32 of the 44 police forces in England and Wales spent £410,000 on legal representation. INQUEST had previously revealed that the MoJ spent £4.2m on legal representation for the prison and probation service while grieving families received £92,000 through the LAA’s exceptional funding scheme.

‘This inequality of arms is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families,’ said Deborah Coles, INQUEST’s director. ‘Every review considering legal aid for Inquests over the past 20 years has recommended this injustice be addressed. The shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed.’

Cost benefit analysis
The economic benefits of legal aid outweighed the costs and public funding can bring significant advantages, a detailed global analysis conducted jointly by the World Bank and International Bar Association (IBA) has found – as reported by Legal Futures.

‘In a world where data increasingly drives policy making, and where budgetary pressures can crunch social spending, evidence-based proposals that demonstrate the net benefits of legal aid are useful and persuasive… . The cost benefit analyses surveyed in this report suggest that the benefits of legal aid outweigh the costs.’
World Bank and IBA report


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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