Weekly round-up: w/c January 21st

News digest for week commencing 21 January 2013, by Emma Walker

Morris Minor of Mixed Metaphors: This week, the recently appointed chair of the Bar Council, Maura McGowan QC, cautioned that defendants in criminal cases will be condemned to having ‘second best’ barristers represent them if further cuts are made to legal aid funding in criminal cases. McGowan’s declarations came in response to the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s, announcement in the Sunday Times that ‘the question is whether access to [a] defence is being given in a way that provides the right balance between the needs of justice and the needs of the public purse. And whether all too often we are paying for a legal ‘Rolls-Royce’ and not something that can do the job equally well. The truth is we cannot afford to pay for that Rolls-Royce any more… That might mean making more use of the best and brightest among our younger barristers and solicitors, and less use of those legal Rolls-Royces’. Grayling continued ‘the cake today has to become smaller, and so it has to go further to ensure that we provide justice’. McGowan responded that ‘the justice secretary seems to be saying you can’t have a silk and you can only have the second best. Lack of experience is a very dangerous thing. We are all happy, for example, to have junior doctors doing straightforward jobs like stitching up an arm but if it’s heart surgery you want someone who has the right expertise.’

Survey reveals changes in legal market: Nearly a third of firms carrying out legal aid work questioned in a survey commissioned by the Law Society, Legal Services Board and the Ministry of Justice, claim to be considering withdrawing from one or more advice area from their practice, over the next three years. Further, almost a third of respondents to the survey stated that they had already started to withdraw advice areas. The research also found that 42% of firms had suffered a drop in turnover over the last three years. Des Hudson, the Law Society’s chief executive commented that the study ‘provides valuable insight into the challenging issues facing our members and a crucial foundation for monitoring change over time and for assessing the impacts of and response to liberalisation of the legal services market and changes to legal aid funding’.

Double Blow Delivered to Legal Advice Agencies: The Legal Services Commission (‘LSC’) announced this week that funding through Community Legal Service grants provided to the Advice Services Alliance, Law Centres Network and the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau will be stopped when the current funding expires on 31 March 2013. The LSC cited the impact of LASPO on Legal Aid, financial pressures and its ‘current priorities’ as reasons for its decision. The advice agencies will be hit by a double blow, as the loss of funding will be accompanied by the cuts provided for by LASPO, which will take effect the following day, on 1 April 2013.

Secret hearings in Supreme Court branded ‘completely ludicrous’: The politically sensitive case of Bank Mellat highlights the legal problems posed by closed material procedures. Treasury solicitors are said to have asked the Supreme Court to consider secret evidence when it hears an appeal by the Iranian bank against sanctions imposed on it by the British government under the powers of the Counter-Terrorism Act. Following the decision in al-Rawi, which effectively banned closed material procedures in civil cases and gave rise to the Justice and Security Bill, the Supreme Court will first have to determine whether it has the power to consider closed material. The Justice and Security Bill, designed to enable secret evidence to be hear in civil cases, is due to enter its committee stage in the House Commons next week, following the Lords’ attacks on the proposals at the end of last year. It is expected that if the Supreme Court decides it does have the power to consider closed material, which it will determine at a public hearing, it will go on to consider whether to exercise that power. Corinna Ferguson, legal officer from the human rights organisation, Liberty, which is acting as an intervener in the Bank Mellat case dubbed the notion of the Supreme Court holding a secret hearing as ‘completely ludicrous’ on the basis that the Court ‘only rules on matters of public importance’.

Supreme Court spearheading online access to justice: This week the Supreme Court launched a YouTube channel showing short summaries of its judgments. Writing in the Guardian this week, Barrister and Legal Blogger, Adam Wagner, celebrated the steps the Court has already taken in facilitating online access to justice and cited the Court’s ‘clear and elegantwebsite, where it publishes press summaries alongside its judgments; the fact that it was the first supreme court to join Twitter; and that its hearings can be watched live online, as examples of the Court’s efforts to date. Wagner also took the launch of the Court’s YouTube channel as an opportunity to suggest it provides access to recordings of full hearings, as can be viewed on the YouTube channel of the Court’s Brazilian Counterpart. He pointed out that the ‘UK’s most important legal hearings are being recorded at great expense and in excellent quality. But, if you miss the live transmission, it is almost impossible to watch them again. Being able to watch them again online would be extremely useful for lawyers, law students and members of the public’. To gain some data on the issue, Wagner has set up a poll where people can vote on whether the Court should post full hearings on its new video channel, the result of which, he will pass on to the Court. Wagner also used the launch as a chance to reflect on the limited online public access to other UK courts, commenting that ‘almost none of the excellent innovations from our highest courts have been passed down to the lower courts, and that is a great problem for access to justice. In the world of the internet and social media, there really is no excuse for court documents, judgments and hearings not to be accessible online’. Despite the failure of these technological advances to trickle down to the lower courts, Wagner ended with further praise for the Supreme Court’s ‘public-facing attitude to technology and social media’, concluding that ‘with just a few tweaks, the excellent service which it already provides will evolve into a truly world class one providing genuine online access to justice’.

Justice Fighters respond to Government plans to curb Judicial Review: Young Legal Aid Lawyers (‘YLAL’) have responded to the Government’s consultation paper proposing changes to judicial review procedure to highlight their concerns with the plans. In a statement published on the YLAL website, the group remarked on the Government’s proposals that ‘although initially launched with reference to planning law, there are many proposed changes that would drastically affect many aspects of public law challenges’. YLAL encouraged its members to respond directly to the Ministry of Justice consultation by completing the Ministry’s online survey. The deadline for responses is Thursday 24 January 2013.

Law Society of Scotland backs down on legal aid reforms: the announcement follows weeks of court walkouts and meetings with the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill. The Herald Scotland reported this week that the Law Society has backed the revised proposals, despite a majority of members rejecting them. Criticisms of the reforms have erupted across the profession but so far half of the respondents to the proposals have voted in favour of the package negotiated by the Law Society, Scottish Government and Scottish Legal Aid Board. The President of the Law Society, Austin Lafferty, commented that ‘while this package does not resolve all of our concerns, it proposes a fairer system than was originally put forward by ministers. As such, we will support amendments to the legislation and other regulations that deliver these material improvements’. Lafferty conceded, however, that practical problems resulting from the reforms were likely. President of the Edinburgh Bar Association, Cameron Tait, said that the Justice Secretary’s ‘megaphone diplomacy might have persuaded the negotiating team, but the profession remains unimpressed. The removal of the availability of legal aid from accused persons on low incomes is abhorrent in modern Scotland, and we have serious concerns about the future of Scottish justice under the stewardship of this Government’. Meanwhile, Ann Ritchie, the President of the Glasgow Bar Association, remarked that ‘it’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the Government does not appear to understand its responsibility so far as the criminal court system is concerned…Our fight for equality of arms and access to justice will continue’.



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