JusticeWatch: Manifesto promises and perverse incentives

Manifesto promises
‘Whatever the intentions of politicians and commentators, this general election is destined to be the narrowest of single-issue campaigns. Brexit will push other issues such as justice to the fringes of debate and those important but perhaps technical issues that typically struggle for airspace (eg, legal aid) won’t have a look in,’ I predicted in an article for the New Law Journal earlier in the week.

Over the last two days the main political parties with the exception of the Tories published their manifestos and to varying degrees did find room for legal aid. Labour had ‘stuck to earlier promises to restore legal aid for early advice, halt further court closures and recruit hundreds of community lawyers’ in its manifesto published yesterday – as reported by Monidipa Founder the Law Society’s Gazette.

‘Over the past year the opposition party has made a series of justice-related pledges,’ it confirmed. ‘Today it confirmed that a Labour government will restore all early legal aid advice, including for housing, social security, family and immigration cases. Hundreds of community lawyers will be recruited and an expanded network of law centres will be built.’

Labour would also halt court closures and staff cuts, and review the courts reform programme. ‘We will facilitate a more representative judiciary while upholding its independence, and review funding for the Crown Prosecution Service,’ it said.

The Lib Dems promised to ‘establish a new right to affordable, reasonable legal assistance, and invest £500 million to restore legal aid, making the system simpler and more generous’. The Greens said that they would ‘reverse cuts to legal aid to prevent survivors being forced to represent themselves against their abusers in court and introduce a new Domestic Abuse Bill, which enables prosecution of economic abuse’.

Clickbait for Tories
I reminded NLJ readers that the words ‘legal aid’ appeared just once in the Conservative’s 2017 manifesto and even then the topic didn’t warrant an entire sentence. It was mentioned merely to demonstrate the government’s resolve to clampdown on ‘unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims’ against our military.

‘Somewhat predictably the spectre of “Phil Shiner” has been invoked in this election campaign when, on Armistice Day,’ I wrote. The PM promised on Armistice day to end the ‘unfair trials’ of soldiers by banning inquests from returning verdicts of unlawful killings for deaths during the Troubles and, for good measure, to amend the Human Rights Act to exclude any death before the Act came into force in October 2000.

‘Clickbait for Tory voters’, media lawyer Mark Stephens reflected. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general but now running as an independent, damned it as ‘electioneering’. ‘I am very sensitive to soldiers not being harassed about events that happened a long time ago, but the rule of law has to be upheld as well,’ he told The Independent.

‘Where parties’ policies are crafted through focus groups designed to extract as many votes as possible from the electorate, it is heartening to see Labour stick to that most unfashionable but important cause: legal aid. There are few votes in sorting out the beleaguered legal aid system or our chaotic, drug ridden and dangerous prisons. Both have been trashed by a decade of austerity following the neglect of previous governments.’
Jon Robins, New Law Journal

‘Any adult who commits the crime of killing a child should spend the rest of his or her life behind bars. It’s as simple as that,’ wrote justice secretary Robert Buckland said  in The Sun.  But is it? questioned Secret Barrister in a blog the looked at Boris Johnson’s key pledge that ‘life really will mean life’ for child killers. ‘The Conservative Party either doesn’t understand (or is lying about) the law, and is pushing a policy to give judges a discretion to impose a sentence they can already impose,’ the anonymous blogger concluded.

Meanwhile, SB has a new book out:

In another policy to beef up the Tories’ ‘tough on crime’ stance, PoliticsHome.com reported that victims of crime and the media would be able to attend parole board hearings. The party said it would ensure that victims were notified of parole hearings and allow them to apply to watch them for the first time.

‘The moves follow a major political row over the parole board’s 2018 decision to allow the release of serial sex attacker John Worboys – a move that was ultimately blocked by the High Court and prompted a shake-up of the organisation by ministers,’ it reported.

Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins said: ‘Victims of crime will often have been through horrific and harrowing experiences. They may have had their lives ripped apart because of physical, emotional or economic abuse. These plans will help to ensure that the system is working for them, not against them – and that they can always count on receiving the justice and support that they deserve.’

Perverse incentives
James Thornton wrote about this research into the ‘strange economics of criminal legal aid’ for the Justice Gap.

Facial recognition
The man who launched a legal challenge after police cameras digitally analysed his face in the street is to take his case to the Court of Appeal, reported BBC News. Ed Bridges has appealed against a ruling that South Wales Police did not breach his human rights by using automated facial recognition technology.

LRB spat
Sir Stephen Sedley ’evoked Hitler’ in a ‘furious riposte’ to a former Law Society president’ over the Supreme Court’s decision in the prorogation of parliament case – reported Paul Rogerson in the Law Society’s Gazette. The exchange took place in the London Review of Books.

Sedley, who retired from the Court of Appeal in 2011, described solicitor Martin Mears’ verdict on the judgment as ‘so full of errors and inconsistencies it’s hard to know where to start’.

Mears, famously outspoken (as the Gazette put it), wrote that the government’s defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court was ‘entirely political’ responded. The objective of Gina Miller and her supporters had always been to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum by one means or another. ‘Does anyone believe that the justices, in their personal capacities, were not in sympathy with this objective?’ the solicitor asked.

Sedley resounded thus: ‘That a former president of the Law Society, which is what Mears is, can ask rhetorically whether anyone believes that the 11 Supreme Court justices were not personally in sympathy with the objective of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum gives some measure of the depth to which public discourse has sunk.’

Referencing the enabling act which made it possible for Hitler’s ‘cabinet’ to override parliament, the judge added: ‘Is Mears proposing such a measure for the UK?’


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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