Friday, 27 February 2015

It's no good ...!

A stench of Ministerial hypocrisy pervaded central London this week.

The Global Law Summit was a "stellar" event attended by legal notables from around the world.  The Secretary of State for Justice spoke of the importance of the rule of law and the ideas implanted by Magna Carta.  The following extract gives a flavour of his speech:

"In the UK, the legal sector contributes over £20 billion to our GDP, employing over 300,000 people. And UK law firms play an important role in the success of international businesses worldwide.  In London, we have a centre of legal excellence that is rival to any other great city in the world. I would like it to stay that way.

I believe that this is best achieved by continuing to innovate, developing our legal system to keep pace with the world around us; continuing to grapple with difficult issues, learning from others and their experiences; but always remaining firmly rooted in the principles of Magna Carta that have served us so well to date."

The Lord Chief Justice also spoke at the opening of the event and referred to the importance of access to justice - read his speech here.

The government is rightly concerned to retain as much international legal business as possible in London.  It IS big money business and other legal centres are developing as challengers.

At home there is a depressing reality for the average individual who is in need of the law.  The government has systematically reduced civil legal aid to a shadow of what it used to be.  (Legal aid remains in some areas).  The result has been a large increase in the number of litigants in person and, given the absence of counsel, the resulting need in some cases for the judiciary to have to spend additional time and costs researching the law. See the Court of Appeal judgments in Linder v Rawlins 2015 at  paras. 32 to 34  where it was said:

" ... the husband who presented his case to us courteously and as comprehensively as he could. Nevertheless, the fact that he was not represented meant that he had approached it on a mistaken basis. The task that would normally have been fulfilled by the parties' legal representatives, of finding relevant documents amongst the material presented, and researching the law and its application to the facts of the case, had to be done by the judges of the Court of Appeal instead. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs as the time taken to attend to this is considerable and cannot be spared in what is already a very busy court."

The process of judicial review - (an important means of holding government to the rule of law) - has been made more difficult.  Also, big increases in fees to even begin civil proceedings are on their way - see the discussion on the Steve Cornforth blog - Pricing justice out of the market.  Further comment may be seen at Law Society - Court Fee increases.  Those increases have raised serious concerns within the judiciary - see the comments in December 2014 of the Lord Chief Justice - Response to consultation on court fees - Enhanced charging.

For criminal law, there is already means testing of legal aid and the number of legal aid contracts offered to solicitors will be drastically cut.  (The latter is currently the subject of a judicial review with an appeal to be heard on 10/11 March. - Law Society 18th February).

It must also be remembered that, if the Conservatives form the next government, "human rights" will be one of their key targets - see post of 6th October 2014.  The Human Rights Act 1998 would almost certainly be repealed and replaced with some alternative less onerous to government.  The outcome would be a diminution of the protection offered to the citizen by domestic law within the UK.

As this two tier (rich and not rich) legal system emerges, it is worth noting that Global Law Summit has not gone by without protest.  A Not the Global Law Summit protest took place in London.  This sought to bring to public attention the hypocrisy of the government.  Writing on his Nothing but the Sun blog, Francis Fitzgibbon QC comments:

 " ... The MOJ has denied access to justice (and hence, justice) to many, by taking key areas of law ‘out of scope’ of legal aid altogether, and cutting it to the bone where it remains. Kenneth Clarke, the Macavity of the LASPO cuts, said he had to do something about legal aid, because it had grown so much and ‘made the poor extremely litigious’: that casual smear stood in for the non-existent evidence for the MOJ’s ruthless policy. It has introduced fees that make employment tribunals unaffordable to most claimants, and proposes more increases across the board for Courts and Tribunals. At the same time the government has made it harder to get legal redress for administrative wrongs, by restricting the availability of judicial review – a remedy that Mr Grayling believes to be a preserve of left wing pressure groups, and therefore fit for strangulation. If he has his way, he will scrap the human rights protections given under the Human Rights Act.

His government has delayed justice by running down the whole system, so that the Courts are overstretched, underfunded and clogged by people representing themselves because they can’t get legal aid and can’t afford a lawyer. Now even the Public Accounts Committee, whose MPs nodded along when the cuts were being made, thinks they have been a disaster .... "

I will leave the final word for today to Tony Cross QC (Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. On Monday 23rd February, he published a statement of what he intended to say at the Global Law Summit.  (I have not been able to find a link to his actual speech).  Mr Cross commented:

  • It is no good championing the principle of access to justice whilst dismantling the mechanisms by which the common man achieves it
  • It is no good claiming 'To no one will we sell justice' if a two tier system of justice evolves where those who can pay get access to justice and those who cannot, do not.
  • It is no good saying we will not delay justice if our criminal justice system is so chronically underfunded or overstretched that delays become endemic.  When the courts are under funded, courts sit empty and trials get delayed.  These delays let down those accused of crime, entitled to have their case heard promptly.  Just as importantly, they betray victims of crime for whom justice delayed is not justice at all.
Other links:

Miscarriages of justice - The Guardian 23rd February -  Why is Britain refusing to compensate victims of miscarriages of justice

"Welcoming guests to the Global Law Summit in London this week, the prime minister reassured the 2,000 delegates that “Britain continues to lead the way in promoting … the rule of law around the world”. But what sort of rule of law allows an innocent person to be locked up for many years and then denied any compensation for their wrongful imprisonment?"

Justice gap - Law without justice is like a body without a soul.  It's a dead letter - Hundreds of lawyers, trade unionists and campaigners gathered outside Parliament on Monday afternoon in defence of the legacy of Magna Carta and to highlight the hypocrisy of the government’s three-day event to mark the 800th anniversary of the historic document, the Global Law Summit.

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