JusticeWatch: Two-tier justice

Two-tier justice
Maya Goodfellow wrote about the ‘dizzying maze’ that is the UK immigration system in a Guardian long read. ‘Support for immigration and asylum cases is almost non-existent unless you have the money to pay for it,’ she concluded. ‘When you are not allowed to work – as is the case for people seeking asylum – funding legal representation can be an impossible task, in a country where legal aid has been decimated.’

The article provided a brief history of the legal aid scheme including the introduction of fixed fees for legal-aid asylum cases in 1997. ‘If you did go over a certain number [of hours] and if you could justify that …then you would get paid by the hour,’ the former immigration barrister Frances Webber told Goodfellow. But getting to that stage was very difficult and the reforms incentivised a factory-style process encouraging, according to Webber, ‘rubbish firms who do no work or do very little work’ and penalising those who took ‘great care’.

Good fellow continued: ‘Firms were expected to subsidise work on asylum cases with money received from more straightforward legal aid cases. The coalition government further cut legal aid in 2013, including the money available for most immigration and asylum cases. New Labour had cracked down on fraudulent lawyers, but as costs spiralled and legal aid was hacked away, the chaos left people once again exposed to predatory lawyers. What this has essentially resulted in is a two-tier justice system.’

Criminal legal aid review delayed
The general election might jeopardise progress on a review of criminal legal aid fees, according to the Law Society’s Gazette (here).

The Ministry of Justice, which began a comprehensive review of payments in March, is due to publish its final report and recommendations next summer. The Law Society president Simon Davis spoke to lord chancellor Robert Buckland, who confirmed that announcements expected this month will not happen.

‘In light of our conversation with the Ministry of Justice, we understand that the review has been making good progress,’ said Chancery Lane. ‘A strong evidence base has been built, but it remains a matter for the next administration to make decisions on future investment. Timing-wise, we understand that it is feasible that interim decisions could be made shortly after the election.’

Any delay was likely to ‘further infuriate criminal defence practitioners, who warned this week that they might have to take direct action if the government fails to fix a pay disparity in favour of prosecutors. The CPS recently revealed revised fees for advocates.

However Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, argued that the payment ‘does nothing to assist the publicly funded defence system which has been cut to the bone over years with slice after slice being imposed by respective governments’. ‘It is now time for politicians to take the crisis in the criminal justice system seriously before it is completely destroyed,’ he added.

Under strain
More delay. The government’s court modernisation programme might not be completed by the deadline of 2023, reckoned LegalFutures. The House of Commons’ public accounts committee (PAC) described the court service as ‘struggling to deliver all it promised’. In March , it was  announced that the programme, which was extended from four to six years before it was signed off, would be delayed by a further year to 2023.

Giving evidence to the PAC last month, Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HMCTS, and Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, insisted that the reforms would be delivered on time.

However, LF reported, the PAC said in a report published ahead of Parliament being dissolved for the election that it was ‘not convinced that it is possible for HMCTS to deliver everything promised in the current timeframe’.

The PAC strongly criticised the service over its handling of court closures, saying it ‘did not adequately consider’ the impact on access to justice or on vulnerable users. The committee also warned that the MoJ faced a ‘potentially huge spike in demand’ from the government’s plan to recruit 20,000 more police officers over the next three years. ‘Sustained cuts to the Ministry’s funding have put services under strain. While the ministry received a 4.9% increase in the 2019‐10 spending round, it is not clear if this will be enough to match new demands,’ it said.

Vulnerable people without access to the internet could be excluded from the justice system as the government pushes court services online  – reported The Times. The annual report from the Administrative Justice Council raised concerns that vulnerable people could struggle to get legal help as more systems become digitised as part of the £1 billion courts and tribunals modernisation programme. Early findings of a survey of 600 organisations that deal with vulnerable individuals facing legal problems, including advice agencies, local authorities and MPs, found that they ‘lacked the capacity to offer them support’.

Welsh justice devolution
Discussions on taking forward proposals for Wales to take full control of its justice system will begin as soon as a new UK government is in place, the Welsh government said (see the Law Society’s Gazette (here).

Responding to last month’s Commission for Justice in Wales report (covered last week), Mark Drakeford AM, first minister, endorsed what he called the key finding that ‘substantial devolution’ of the justice system is necessary. ‘This central finding is consistent with the longstanding position of the Welsh government – reaffirmed most recently in our paper “Reforming the Union” last month,’ Drakeford said.

According to the Gazette: ‘While the Welsh government has long argued that “a nation which makes and executes its own laws ought also to police them, in the broadest sense of that word”, the commission’s report shows that “real and insurmountable practical challenges” flow from the division of responsibilities between Westminster and Wales.’

The return of pro bono week
Pro bono week ‘comes back from the dead’,  wrote Jonathan Ames in the Times’ Brief. The event had to be ‘saved from the chop last year amid fears that too much crowing about free services simply encourages the government to slash the legal aid budget yet further’.

‘Many legal aid lawyers reckon that state-funded rates already effectively amount to working on a pro bono basis. And they tend to find it a bit irksome that wealthy City firms steal all the glory with their “corporate social responsibility” programmes, which in the great scheme of things make little impact on Square Mile equity partners drawings of £1 million-plus.’
Jonathan Ames

The organisers ‘demonstrating their sensitivities’ published a statement saying that ‘pro bono can only make a modest contribution to access to justice and cannot replace a properly funded legal aid system’. However, they pointed out that last year Law Works organised 280 clinics that advised nearly 48,000 people.

LawWorks announced the shortlist for the 2019 Pro Bono Awards. The annual awards lecture will be given by Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court.

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

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *