Monday, 6 September 2010

Is "Justice" in safe hands?

"Justice" is under serious threat.  Here is some of the evidence:

1). A massive cull of family law solicitors has been announced by the Legal Services Commission.  An article by family lawyer Marilyn Stowe describes the situation as a "bloody beheading" - see Solicitors Journal "Law will tear us apart" - 16th August 2010.  The cuts are savage.  To quote from the article - "Lawyers and their clients - the most vulnerable and the neediest clients - are on the receiving end of savage cuts and a mutilated service.  I can't help but reflect that the bankers who brought about this recession are reporting fat profits once more, but that desperate families in need can no longer have the access to justice to which they are entitled.  It leads one to wonder, in despair: does justice have any value at all?

A judicial review of the Legal Services Commission's decision-making has been brought by the Law Society and this will be heard on 21st September with judgment expected on 24th September - see Law Society 3rd September 2010.

Whilst this process of denial of justice to ordinary people continues apace, it seems that the Supreme Court is getting ready for a NINE judge hearing about a pre-nuptial agreement signed in Germany.  Does this matter really require a NINE member court?  The case is Radmacher v Granatino and the Court of Appeal judgment may be seen here.   Then there was the "cheat's charter" judgment in Tchenguiz v Imerman [2010] EWCA Civ 908.  The case concerned the confidentiality of information relating to the assets of divorcing couples.  Paragraph 88 of the judgment, with the notion of spouses having separate studies, makes one wonder just which planet some of the judges live on.  As ever, it is nice to know that justice, like the Ritz Hotel, is open to everyone.

2). The previous Labour government started the hatchet job on magistrates' courts and the axe has been taken up with relish by Kenneth Clarke.  The vast majority of criminal cases are dealt with by the magistrates' courts and access to such courts is essential.  The closures will mean that many victims and witnesses will have to travel further to get their cases heard.  The extended travel distances will inevitably result in more people failing to turn up on the day especially if, as seems likely, the usual attention is paid to wintry conditions on the roads.  The axeing of "local justice" will also have the effect of disengaging from the legal system those active citizens who care about things and who have been willing to give their time to serve as magistrates.

3). Legal aid in magistrates' courts is now at a minimal level since defendants have to pass both a means test AND an interests of justice test.  There are many cases in which the interests of justice test is met but the defendant's means exceed the very modest legal aid ceiling.  The result is more defendants trying to represent themselves and, in doing so, the appear to be coming to rely on dubious sources of law - see "Tricks and cheats are the price of culling legal aid" (Guardian 5th September 2010).

Legal aid in the Crown Court is also means tested under a scheme of the Labour government which the new coalition allowed to continue.  The Legal Services Commission is asking for comment about the implementation of this scheme.

4). Prison does not work is the other Kenneth Clarke mantra.  Of course, he was referring to short term prison sentences which it is claimed do little or nothing to rehabilitate offenders though society is given a short break from their activities.  Short term prison sentences are expensive.  The alternative is "community sentencing" but the various programmes have to be properly funded and resourced with experienced trained personnel.  There are serious concerns about both of those aspects- see the article by Ian Blair in the Guardian 6th September "So, prison's a party, is it?"   We seem to be in some danger of a worst of all worlds scenario: moving away from using imprisonment whilst not having an effective alternative.

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