Category Archives: Ministry of Justice

Legal Aid is vital to avoid transience within communities

Whilst visiting a local church in one of the poorest parishes in the Diocese, Brother Ivo enjoyed a conversation over coffee with a lady who was deeply involved in outreach to her local community.

The Church ran a cafe ensuring a good affordable hot meal on a daily basis in sociable surroundings. They were very supportive of debt counselling but struggling to find enough time and advisors to meet the need. There was good work offered to children and young people. They were perhaps the last stable institution staring in an impoverished areas and they were anxious to stay, and serve the poor the lonely and the outcast.

It is the kind of church which makes one proud to be. Christian.

They had built their presence thanks to the receipt of grants, including good support from the local Diocese, and the Local Council, yet therein lies the problems. All such grants are limited in scope and time. Having built a functioning project for the benefit of the poor, it was threatened by an approaching end to funding streams.

The church remained dedicated and optimistic and were praying for support.

Should they be forced to contract their activities, the church will join a long list of sectors to have withdrawn from the community.

Once, the parish had housed the skilled workers for a large local defence establishment. Decline in the areas began when that facility had been closed, sacrificed to sustain another community in another part of the country. Shops closed, mutual associations and friendly societies were raided by carpet baggers intent on short term profit; pubs disappeared, and with them, local sports and other voluntary organisations all of which ceased to be active. Little by little, the structures of society ebbed away, until only the Church remains.

It is not only the public infrastructure which has departed, so have traditional local families.

That had always been the case in a modest form. As families “got on” they tended to move up the hill to slightly better or bigger houses, and young people moved to other parts of the country after going to university, but this natural turnover became worse and accelerated faster.

When the local economy sunk into depression,  house prices dropped and were bought up by ” buy to let ” landlords. Their client group reflected demographic change. Set in an area close to London the community experienced a squeeze from two directions; from recent European immigrants arriving from the Channel ports, and from others moving out of London as rental costs continue to rise in the capital.

With a ready supply of poorer, socially disadvantaged, often unsophisticated renters available, absentee landlords have no difficulty letting sub-standard properties.  the Local Council has other pressing priorities and are slow to enforce the law. People don’t like living there and move when they can even though the “grass is not greener” in the next property.

It is in this context, that Brother Ivo draws attention to the recently published Theos report arguing that there is a need to restore Legal Aid. You may read the story here – http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/news/legal-profession/legal-aid/legal-aid-side-angels

It is precisely because tenants can no longer enforce the law relating to housing law, because Legal Aid is not available, that the quality of the housing stock has declined. If you cannot enforce rights and standards, your only recourse is to move on – if you can. you have no pride of place, few places of common ground, and frequently no common language or culture with those about you.

It is in transient communities that drug dealing, human trafficking, and many other anti-social activities can flourish.

In the 1990’s,  New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pioneered policing methods which transformed first that city then Los Angeles, based upon the premise that dealing with the smaller problems of a local community paid huge dividends with the higher profile concerns. He famously demonstrated that by zero tolerance of petty crime, such as little , broken windows and graffiti, you established a social climate in which the murder rate markedly reduced.

Our Victorian forebears who founded such communities originally put it a different way. “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves.’

The same principle applies with the building of community and Legal Aid has an important place which is easily overlooked in anti-lawyer rhetoric.

Stable community cannot be built out of transience, because so many other social problems flow from it.

This is not a party political issue. The savage cutting of Legal Aid happened under Labour after many years of persistent neglect. The Conservative/Liberal coalition has maintained that policy of deliberately ignoring the enforcement of the law by and on behalf of the poor.

Damage has already been done. Law firms have closed in such areas, as have Community Law Centres. The expertise which had been developed in earlier decades in specialist areas of law has already been lost.

In public finance terms, the savings are small but disproportionately harmful.

Community requires local identification because only if local people are cohesive and care for each other can they have the kind of society in which they demonstrate love for their neighbour by reporting the drug dealer, the violent partner, the neglected child or the exploited immigrant.

We need to identify transience as an important factor in righting these social problems, and whilst it is not popular to speak of the need for Legal Aid we probably cannot address many of the issues driving social exclusion adequately without it.

The First Lesson of the Chilcott Inquiry

Brother Ivo has never read the Chilcott Report: nobody who was not a witness or a close associate of that process has.

It is an inquiry into an immensely important and complicated matter, involving not only historical facts about what did or did not happen before Britain went to war in Iraq, but also diplomatic matters with our principal ally the United States. with whom we have long shared sensitive security information and political confidences.

That said, most of the participants who made the decisions are still alive, many of the discussions were minutely documented and minuted, and although we are addressing issues from 10 years ago, most of the participants are alive and mentally agile enough to engage actively in the process.

Nevertheless, we have arrived at a complete shambles. Nobody is satisfied. There is much suspicion of cover up, and prevarication.

The Inquiry was conducted by a career Civil Servant.

Consider now the growing dissatisfaction with the inquiry into historical sexual abuse of children, which is currently parked whilst the “stakeholders” argue about the identity of the Chair and the scope of the investigation which is already looking at a minimum of 40 years of contentious evidence, with less reliable documentation and many participants within the process and history old or dead.

There is immense emotion involved in the historic abuse inquiry with lives having been utterly destroyed: the levels of personal investment is even greater with wholly understandable frustration, anger and a sense of injustice abounding. These factors are currently disabling the historical Abuse Inquiry from even taxiing down the runway, still less taking off.

The capable management of such an Inquiry is much much more complex and sensitive even than that of the Chilcott Inquiry. It is for this reason that the choice of Chair is so important.

Some readers will know that Brother Ivo was disappointed when Dame Butler-Sloss was forced to stand down from chairing the process. The perception of potential bias had been elevated beyond the requirement of fundamental competence to the task: sobeit.

Those who resist in principal the appointment of distinguished  Judge well versed in complex. case management need to reflect carefully upon the current Chilcott debacle.

This is what a non Judge led Inquiry looks like.

The identification of issues, evaluation of contentious facts, Judgment of credibility and succinct presentation of findings, is utterly normal to even the middle order judge, and the vast majority of cases are not only not appealed but are unappealable when explained by those whose training ethos and culture, predispose them to avoiding the errors of discursive, lengthy, and contentious judgements. Professional habituation training and ingrained good practice is vital if one is not to prolong such highly emotionally charged investigations

Professional competence within a known sphere of expertise is something we take for granted in our doctors, engineers, architects, and plumbers. Those who routinely complain that our judiciary should not undertake the Chairing of such Inquiries, need to observe what is happening over Chilcott and note what results when we entrust such matters to those whose lifelong professional experience is not within the required area of expertise.

To put it in the most populist terms, in such cases we need Judge John Deed, not Sir Humphrey Appleby

No Human Rights without Legal Aid, Mr Khan

Brother Ivo takes his name from the patron saint of lawyers, who was effectivley the first recorded legal aid lawyer; he was certainly famed  for his advocacy on behalf of the poor. It is a cause close to Brother Ivo’s heart, so he accordingly tuned in to listen to listen to Labour Justice spokesman Sadiq Khan with real interest as Mr Khan told the nation about his priorities should he be given the justice brief in a Labour Government.

We heard that Mr Khan’s modest family origins caused him to identify with and  speak up for the poor, and if that be so, good for him. We all ought to applaud those who come through from modest origins, unlike David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and, err .. Ed Milliband, Ed Balls, Harriett Harman, Hilary Benn, and many others on Labour’s top table.

Brother Ivo was himself born during post war austerity, in a council house which his parents were not exactly entitled to occupy, so as boys from the wrong side of the tracks, he and Sadiq ought perhaps to stick together.

Unfortunately that that bonhomie  and fellow feeling did  not last long into his speech.

Sadiq Khan quickly went into attack mode on behalf of the much criticised Human Rights Act, making the common mistake of confusing substance and form. He prayed in aid Sir Winston Churchill,  who, he seemed to suggest, would have leapt to the defence of the HRA against the proposals of some on the right who wish to repeal it.

Brother Ivo is not quite  of the era, but is historically informed enough to know that Britain did not place itself under the authority of the European Court despite having originally defined the concepts of the Human Rights Convention. We, unlike most of Europe, had not fallen under the intellectual sway of either the jurisprudence of Fascism or Marxism . We had our common law to protect us: it had evolved organically over hundreds of years , having been framed and refined by fair minded judges. We did not instantly  join up to the European jurisprudential renewal – because we did not need to.

To have insisted upon British participation would have been an impertinence, rather like asking Sir Chris Hoye to take a cycling proficiency test. Sir Winston would have instinctively known that Britain’s courts did not need to place themselves under Human Rights Principles –  because they embodied them.

So much of Mr Khan’s big point. Yet as he made his case, few in the hall appreciated that he was standing on incredibly thin ice.

As as a proud Human Rights lawyer, Mr Khan has operated within a protected environment. Britain has to fund Human Rights cases, and does so richly if reluctantly. Thus Abu Quatada and his lawyers consumed £1.3m on his 8 year campaign to avoid the justice in his home country. Jordan has just acquitted him.

Is is anybody outside the Human Rights gravy train thinking “So glad we spent the money”?

The prioritising of cases such has Mr Quatada, has come at a cost, largely in the family Courts. It is common knowledge that the priorities which the Human Rights Act accorded to the absolute rights found within Immigration and Asylum Law, broke the old system of Legal Aid. The budget was finite: the new area of law was the cuckoo in the nest which duly began to heave the original offspring out of the nest.

Legal Aid was established as part of the post war Welfare State, and undoubtedly grew enormously under both Labour and Conservative governments. Both moved quickly to make economies when budgetary problems struck.

Labour, and its 3rd sector cheerleaders were very swift to condemn the £200m cuts to the Legal Aid budget, introduced by the Conservatives, and rightly so. Labour is not usually reticent about spending money or promising to reverse ” Tory Cuts”.

Brother Ivo therefore waited to hear Mr Khan announce that such cuts would be reversed. He waited in vain.

Mr Khan it appears is a blowhard. Strong on the rhetoric, weak on the application.

For all the talk of justice, Mr Khan and his party are talking in the abstract. Human Rights without Legal Aid for the poorest members of society, provide but a fig leaf of justice.

Mr Khan chose to avoid owning his policy. An open politician would have explained why he has chosen to retain Chris Graylings priorities having  plainly decided to do nothing to put the flesh on the bones of the rhetoric.

The Abu Quatadas of the world and those representing them will continue to suckle on the taxpayers teat, but ordinary people in, say, Clacton or Heywood and Middleton will continue to be on their own when family problems take them to Court.

Doubtless Mr Khan will next be in the television studios expressing disbelief and incomprehension when UKIP advances thanks to the support of the ordinary voters who have found the Welfare State is not there for them when they need it. Once they thought Labour stood for folks just like them, Mr Khan is teaching them otherwise.

 

 

 

Who is responsible for the rising cost of Legal Aid?

Attachment-1

Specialist Criminal Law Solicitors, and Barristers of the Criminal Law Bar will be demonstrating outside Courts this morning over Government plans to reduce a further £220m from their sector of the Legal Aid budget.

They have targeted their mode of demonstration to avoid disrupting trials or impacting upon the vulnerable and the Duty Solicitor service will be maintained. As ‘industrial action” goes it is all very low key and would probably result in howls of derision if a similar modest model were to be proposed to the members of Bob Crowe’s RMT Union.

It is nevertheless securing widespread media interest such as that of the ”Independent” or ”Daily Mirror”

It is the first such action taken by Advocates  and has the support of their Professional bodies, Judges and many interested organisations. The breakdown in communication between the professions and the Ministry of Justice which this action marks may be related to the fact that the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is the first non-lawyer to hold the position, advised by Civil Servants who similarly do not have personal direct experience or understanding of that for which they hold responsibility.

Whilst one may not want a close and cosy relationship between those who claim on the public purse and those who hold responsibility for husbanding the public resources, it is equally unhelpful when Government Ministers and Civil Servants  are divorced from the reality and frequently know not whereof they speak.

Brother Ivo will not attempt to describe the complexities of the Legal Aid system: it does not seem to be contentious that the budget for Criminal Law practitioners  has reduced by some 30% in recent years and as a free market party politician, Mr Grayling might be expected to understand that if talented barristers have a choice to take cases in other areas of the law, they may well migrate out of the defence of our liberties.

Future quality will be affected by the priorities selected. The economy of today may easily return as the miscarriage of Justice scandal of future years, with commensurate outrage and compensation being paid out.

The complexities of the pay structures make it difficult to explain the issue to the public. Hearing that 1200 barristers earned more than £100k last year, the public may not readily appreciate that this may result from two or three years work being paid in a single year. Most people working for the Government get paid within a month of completing their work; lawyers often wait years, despite reforms designed to improve it.

Because these lawyers are paid by public funds their incomes are compared to teachers and nurses: it is not appreciated that from those fees  the lawyer pays for his own premises, administrative staff, pensions, training, professional expenses, insurances, books, computers etc.

As the figures are offered to influence public opinion and especially journalists, it is important to make sure that they are properly understood and that only fair and proper comparisons  are made. One suspects that there are more Head teachers and NHS Administrators earning over £100k pa from the public purse than barristers. There are certainly more employes of the BBC in such happy circumstances.

There is much commentary and information being written today so Brother Ivo will limit his contribution to a broader overview.

Brother Ivo dislikes the argument he is hearing advanced, that we have the most expensive Legal Aid system in the world.

It is advanced as if the solicitors and  barristers are responsible for this. Many are earning  the average gross income of £56k; some beginners earning as little as £13k a year. How we shall improve the diversity of the profession on such incomes is not made clear by our politicians. Plainly such entry level remuneration is only bearable by those with independent means

If the budget has risen unacceptably within fee structures and procedures set by Government and its advisers, then the buck stops there. There are a a variety of components which need to be appreciated as one approaches that rise and considers the International comparisons

When police violence and dishonesty caused the necessity of offering free 24 hour cover at every police station for every suspect interviewed, the cost of Justice rose.

When we decided that every interview must be recorded, transcribed edited and offered to the Courts, the costs of Justice increased.

When custody records were rendered necessary by bad police practice so that every minute of a suspects time and interactions in a police station could be subsequently checked, the costs rose.

When we decided that a Human Rights Act was needed to call into account Government and its agents, the examination of compliance was always going to affect the work, time allocated and costs to the Legal Aid fund.

When new advances, such as DNA forensic science, come before the Courts, the reliability of the science and the security of the gathering of evidence were and continue to be reflected in legal aid costs.

If you lose control of your borders, do not be surprised if the costs of asylum and immigration cases sky rocket. Do not be shocked if the Courts also see a massive increase in foreign criminals being prosecuted, each needing interpreters, document translation services and slower trials, all costing more.

When we press for historic cases to be prosecuted, perhaps driven by scientific change, the costs to the system rise.

If rescidivist criminals are released unreformed into the community to save costs in the prison service,  and if they constantly re-offend, are bailed and re-offend again, the Legal Aid fund is impacted.

If we want complex financial fraud prosecuted we should steel ourselves for the Legal Aid fund to reflect that priority.

None of these decisions are made by the lawyers who serve the Justice system. Their work responds to the decisions and priorities set by politicians. We  should not be surprised if within the system shaped by politicians, suspects call upon their rights to free representation or when those who contract to offer their services duly present their accounts.

In short, the laws. procedures, priorities, and remuneration rates are all shaped and controlled by Government.

If Government wishes to reduce the proportion of public funds allocated to Legal Aid spending so that it more closely reflects the International average, then it should have the integrity to identify which aspects of the Justice system it wishes to see less of.

Brother Ivo understands that the lawyers representatives have offered to discuss procedural changes which  they can identify as insiders, to improve the efficiencies, but there is a problem that these initiatives are too often regarded  by the non- lawyers in charge with a degree of suspicion, as if all such ideas must be self serving. That is both foolish and unworthy.

The public of course says it prefers to call for the integrity of our Judicial system to be preserved. Few would choose to see it degraded by adopting the standards and practices of those lower down the Legal Aid League. There may be countries with good standards and lower legal aid costs but they may simply be more law abiding, and perhaps homogeneous. It may not be popular to say so but diverse societies may have more complex social problems and tensions.

As the debate continues and as Chris Grayling continues to assert that these economies can be made without harming the quality of Justice, Brother Ivo is mindful of the words of an old Gospel Song.

“Everybody wants to ride the train to heaven, but no one wants to pay the fare.”