Weekly round-up 10 – 14 March

justice2Family judge slams ‘wasteful and inefficient’ LAA: A family judge has lambasted the ‘almost impenetrable’ level of bureaucracy faced by solicitors dealing with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), according to the Gazette. Judge Clifford Bellamy, sitting in the High Court in Leicester, said the LAA had been ‘wasteful and inefficient’ in dealing with an application for funding for an expert witness report. The judge said he had concerns about the ‘negative, costly and unhelpful impact’ of the LAA’s actions in the case. He added: ‘If this case is at all illustrative of the way the LAA normally discharges its responsibilities then that is deeply troubling.’  He said solicitors faced a choice of instructing the proposed expert and hoping the fee will be repaid or applying to the LAA for prior authority to incur that disbursement. ‘No solicitor acting for a publicly funded party should be expected to take the risk of being out of pocket by instructing an expert without prior authority from the LAA,’ he added. In light of criticisms, the judge directed that the solicitor for the children’s guardian forward a copy of the judgment to the chief executive of the LAA and order that he shall respond to it in writing within 28 days. A spokesman for the LAA said: ‘We note the judge’s remarks and will be responding in writing, as directed.’

Cuts require radical reform of court system, says lord chief: The lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, last week suggested that a more inquisitorial procedure in civil cases, an end to juries in fraud trials, and a downgrading of some criminal trials away from the crown court to a district judge sitting with two magistrates should be introduced in the wake of the legal aid cuts.  Speaking at an event to launch Justice’s 2014-16 strategy, the Guardian reported that Thomas said that the justice system was in ‘an age of entrenchment’ as a result of the cuts, but that the system cannot be allowed to break and the rule of law must be upheld.  ‘We can only do that by radically examining how we recast the justice system so that it is equally, if not more, efficient and able to carry out its constitutional function,’ he said.  On the subject of civil cases, Thomas said: ‘To some, a change to a more inquisitorial procedure seems like the obvious or the only solution to the present situation we find ourselves in, with the increase in litigants-in-person and the need to secure both a fair trial for all while doing so within fixed and reducing resources.’

Labour MP calls for reversal of legal aid cuts: David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has called for his party to reverse Grayling’s ‘unnecessary and calamitous’ cuts to legal aid if they are elected into government in 2015. ‘In 1948 Labour established a welfare state that ensured the post-war generations would have access to key services whether they could afford to pay for them or not, ‘ said Lammy. ‘This included not just health and education but access to legal justice. Chris Grayling is seeking to dismantle this settlement.’ Lammy said that the cuts would make it ‘impossible’ for small and specialised firms to operate and could ‘pressure clients into pleading guilty’.  Lammy qualified as a lawyer when miscarriages of justice were rife.  ‘Those were the days of the Tottenham Three, Guildford Four and Birmingham Six – do we really want to see them again?,’ he said. Lammy warned that the cuts would lead to a system of ‘easyLaw’. ‘But unlike the budget airline there is no guarantee you will reach your destination, because the plane is being flown by a rookie without support from ground control,’ he added. ‘By ploughing forward with his cuts without listening to such widespread criticism, Chris Grayling has snapped the balanced scales of justice in half,’ concluded Lammy. ‘Labour should reverse his changes and solder them back together.’

Plymouth University cancels LPC, blaming fall in student numbers: Plymouth University has cancelled its Legal Practice Course (LPC) for the 2014/15 academic year, citing a drop in student enrolments as the rationale behind its decision. A university spokesperson confirmed to Lawyer2B magazine that it would not be accepting students on its LPC for the next academic year, saying that it was pausing recruitment to ‘discuss the programme’s long term future in conjunction with local and national legal bodies as part of a wide-ranging review’. They emphasised that the cancellation did not affect current students working towards their LPC and added: ‘The Plymouth Law School remains fully committed to providing an excellent practice-oriented learning experience, which continues to give undergraduate and postgraduate students a first class and relevant introduction to the legal profession.’ The course currently has fewer than 20 registered students. The spokesperson told Lawyer 2B that the school was expecting similar numbers, or potentially fewer, for next year given the national downward trend.

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