JusticeWatch: ‘We need to love legal aid – as we do the NHS’

We need to love legal aid as we do the NHS
Bar a tweet from the Ministry of Justice, the government had been silent over the 70th anniversary of the legal aid scheme in July, wrote Catherine Baksi in The Times. The lack of fanfare ‘contrasted sharply’ with celebrations last year to mark 70 years since the creation of the NHS, she argued.

The annual legal aid budget was about £1.6 billion ‘£950 million lower in real terms than it was in 2010. Less than 20 per cent of the population is now eligible,’ she continued. ‘Deep cuts to fees have driven many lawyers from legal aid work, which, coupled with cuts to local authority funding for law centres, has created areas of the country in which people without money cannot get help.’

The scale of the problem was shown in ‘a sevenfold rise in demand for help from the Personal Support Unit since 2013’. The charity now sees almost 750,000 people a year but the charity has volunteers in only 10 per cent of courts in England and Wales. Steve Hynes, the former director of the Legal Action Group, pointed out that the majority of the legal aid budget was spent on crime and 95% of defendants were male.

‘A largely male political and legal establishment chose to ignore the discriminatory impact on women of the civil cuts. I don’t accept the value judgment that the right to a defence when facing criminal charges trumps those of victim of domestic violence or those of a single parent trying to feed and clothe their children.’
Steve Hynes

Sue James, a solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, told Baksi: ‘We need to love legal aid as we do the NHS because it is likely to disappear if we don’t care enough about it.’

‘Pure molten idiocy’
The CBA was not a political organisation but ‘we will speak out if the rule of law comes under attack’, wrote its chair Caroline Goodwin QC in the group’s Monday Message. ‘Any government – the executive – which ignores the rule of law and actively seeks to break the law undermines the entire justice system, opens the door wide open to mob rule and very quickly to anarchy. How can a government on the one hand pledge to unleash a “reign of terror” on criminals when its own leadership threatens to break the law?’

This prompted the following lively Twitter exchange with former Ukip-er Suzanne Evans who called the Bar leader ‘a disgrace to her profession, to democracy, and to human decency’ and called for her to be sacked.

Court closures
The MoJ plans to close 77 more courts over the next seven years as the ongoing modernisation programme rendered them ‘surplus to requirements’, reported the Law Society’s Gazette. The figure was revealed in the latest update from the National Audit Office.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has already closed 127 sites in England and Wales ‘generating £124m through property sales’ since 2015. According to the Gazette: ‘A further 96 were earmarked for closure by 2021/22, the update reveals, but that number has been reduced to 77 and the completion date put back by four years. The current plan is for six closures in the current financial year, eight in 2020/21 and 17 in 2021/22.’

The Gazette also reported opposition to flexible court pilots at London’s Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre. Brentford is testing 8am-10.30am and 4.30pm-7pm sittings in civil work. Manchester is testing 4.30pm-7pm sittings involving civil and family work.

‘Our clients are mostly on low incomes, and travelling across London at peak times will be impossible,’ commented Hammersmith and Fulham, and Ealing law centres. ‘Missed hearings will lead to defences that the court never considers, and prevents meeting a duty solicitor, which is often how many clients access the service of a law centre, allowing welfare benefits caseworkers and referral partners to work holistically with the client to solve underlying issues.’

Racism and the judiciary
A prominent judge told the employment tribunal that race discrimination was a ‘significant problem’ on the bench, reported the Guardian. Peter Herbert, the chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, is suing the MoJ for race discrimination after he was disciplined for a speech in 2015.

He told a tribunal hearing in Leeds on Thursday that racism in the legal profession was ‘well documented and systematic’ and that it was ‘prevalent’ in the judiciary. ‘What I assert is that this is a matter of race discrimination and victimisation and that it is of fundamental importance to the administration of justice in England and Wales,’ Herbert told the employment judge Sarah-Jane Davies.

Herbert is believed to be the first judge to sue the MoJ for race discrimination and victimisation. Apparently, two other judges are also preparing to sue the MoJ on the same grounds.

In the speech for which he was disciplined, Herbert had criticised the Electoral Commission’s decision to bar the former mayor of Tower Hamlets, from holding public office. ‘Racism is alive and well and living in Tower Hamlets, in Westminster and, yes, sometimes in the judiciary,’ he had said. A complaint was then made to the Judicial Conduct Investigation Office.

Victims of domestic abuse ‘betrayed’
The prime minister yesterday took to social media to confirm via Twitter that the government was ‘fully committed’ to reintroducing new legislation to protect victims of domestic abuse following concerns that it, together with a major overhaul to divorce law, had both been axed as a result of Parliament’s suspension earlier this week.

The Justice Gap reported that in response to the prorogation, women’s rights groups including Women’s Aid, Imkaan and the Centre for Women’s Justice wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to ensure the Bill remains ‘a priority’ for the government’s next session. ‘Whatever happens next, the Prime Minister must confirm that protecting the rights and safety of survivors is a priority,’ said Nicki Norman, acting co-chief executive of Women’s Aid. ‘Over two years, thousands of survivors have bravely shared their experiences of domestic abuse with the government and fought to improve support for women and children. They must not be betrayed.’

This news was followed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)’s publication of an annual report which shows a 15.1% fall prosecutions across domestic abuse, rape and sexual offences in 2018-19 (also covered on the Justice Gap here).

Victims’ charities were ‘understandably angry and fearful’ that something was ‘going very wrong in our criminal justice system’, wrote the Secret Barrister in The Times. ‘Fingers are being pointed at the CPS itself, which stands accused of applying overly strict standards when making decisions on whether to bring prosecutions,’ the anonymous blogger continued.’Drilling into the figures, however, leads to another possible explanation for the gulf between allegations and convictions. Home Office statistics show that the main cause of the drop-off was not prosecutors refusing to charge meritorious cases, but prosecutors not taking any decision at all.’
The reasons for this could be found in the problems plaguing our underfunded criminal justice system, SB argued; for example, the disclosure scandals, huge amounts of digital evidence the fact that a third of CPS prosecutors have been cut since 2010t. ‘There are many factors behind the rape prosecution gap but we should not overlook the main cause of the denial of justice to victims: the delays caused by chronic under-resourcing of our criminal justice system,’ the blogger reasoned.

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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