Erosion to the rule of law

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As another week has passed, the Save UK Justice e-petition has now exceeded 61,000 signatures. An increase of well over 11,000 since the same time last week. Now only 39,000 signatures away from sparking a parliamentary debate. The momentum continues to grow and pick up pace which is encouraging as the petition is growing in numbers faster than ever.

The protest went ahead on Wednesday as planned. Hundreds of lawyers stood in front of a coffin marked ‘RIP Legal Aid’ to demonstrate against the proposed cuts. Unfortunately the event was overshadowed by events in Woolwich on the same day. Tragic events which have been placed under the Continue reading

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Action

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This week is all about action for the legal profession. It was kicked off today very nicely with the London Legal Walk; a 10km walk organised by the London Legal Support Trust. This event saw 481 teams and over 7500 walkers participate in order to raise money which goes towards funding legal advice clinic’s and law centres across London. Charities which rely on such fundraising. Charities that do such an incredible job of helping vulnerable members of the community, who often have nowhere else left Continue reading

One step forward, two steps back

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This week there have been a few examples of how government cuts in the UK criminal justice system have already started to actually cost more than they were planned to save.

First the probation service. Over the course of the last few years the probation service has seen budgets cut of around 25% or more. The result has seen many problems in magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts up and down the county, which seem to be becoming more widespread. Due to stretched resources probation officers often miss deadlines for completing Pre Sentence Reports, which result in sentencing hearings being adjourned time and time again. Of course, counsel and indeed the court itself only find out on the day of the hearing that the report is not ready. This leads to counsel still being paid (by the government in the case of legally aided defendants) and also to a case being scheduled for a hearing not taking place; clogging up court lists unnecessarily.

Another example is that of a case recently which involved a 17 year old schoolgirl. The girl had been expelled from her previous two schools as she had started a fire in each. The first being put out quite quickly and not causing much damage. The second engulfed an entire building. Fortunately nobody was injured. The case went to court and she was convicted of arson. Upon sentencing the court was of the belief that prison would not be suitable due to her age, nor would a standard community order. The court was of the opinion that she should be placed on an Intensive Alternative to Custody programme (IAC). This is a relatively new type of community order, combining intensive probation supervision with a mix of mandatory activities. The court were however shocked to be told by the probation officer that they didn’t have time to do an IAC. Instead the probation officer asked if they could just do a ‘normal’ community order. The hearing was adjourned until the probation service did have time. Another example of how the cuts have failed in the probation service. That is without even going on to look at how the figures show up to a quarter fall in the number of programmes successfully completed, resulting in higher reoffending rates. It therefore cannot be said that the cuts to the probation service will have saved any money at all. Even if it has, it’s a false economy as the money saved will be being spent in other places as a direct result of the cuts here.

Second, the ongoing saga with the company running the privatised court interpreter service in England and Wales; Capita Translation and Interpreting. From January 30th 2012 the whole system of court interpreters was privatised and the contract was awarded to Capita. The government aimed to save £18 million a year. This has been something which has been described as a ‘shambles’. The most recent example was that last week of a translator failing to turn up at a murder trial and the court clerk being told that no-one was coming as there ‘wasn’t enough money in it’. Low and behold the trial had to be adjourned at the expense of the taxpayer. This is not a one off example. Capita’s target is to provide a translator 98% of the time. In fact statistics reveal they have never achieved over 95% with some months as low as 66%. Therefore some months 1 in 3 trials are adjourned because Capita are unable to provide a translator. The figures, released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) also show there have been 6,417 complaints and more than 600 court trials abandoned due to a lack of interpreters over the last 12 months. Again, this just goes to show that the government will not have saved the £18 million they said they thought they would. They have probably saved nowhere near that figure, if anything at all.

Do these examples not serve as a warning to the government in light of the proposed cuts to legal aid? Why have no lessons been learnt and why is the government insistent upon pursuing cuts which will have a crippling effect on the criminal justice system in England and Wales? There are many other examples other than the ones given above. In fact the list is probably becoming endless with many new examples occurring daily. When will the government wake up and realise enough is enough?

The e-petition in relation to saving UK justice has now received nearly 38,000 signatures. Up nearly 7,000 in the last week. The word is getting out and needs to continue to do so in order to receive the 100,000 signatures required to spark a parliamentary debate.

The e-petition is available here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

Another site worth visiting is one set up by Rachel Bentley, the creator of the e-petition: www.saveukjustice.net

Dale Timson

LLB Student & Aspiring Barrister

13/05/2013

Access to justice

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A prominent subject still at the forefront of the legal profession is that of legal aid. As discussed in last week’s blog, the government have made proposals which will be pushed through as secondary legislation. This means that not even a debate in parliament will take place over the proposals. The proposals will have a devastating effect on the criminal justice system and will leave many people without access to justice; a fundamental right within a ‘democratic’ society.

Let one take a scenario. Image you have been arrested for murder. A crime which carries a sentence of life imprisonment. The evidence points at you; the evidence could be enough for a jury to convict you. There’s just one problem, you didn’t do it. You’re innocent. The police who are already under enormous pressure including that of performance targets don’t review the evidence properly. They take it on face value and make a decision to charge you. The case file is sent to the CPS who again are under enormous pressure and they don’t review the evidence in its entirety. They make a decision to prosecute. You’re denied bail due to the serious nature of the offence; it’s not in the public interest to let a ‘murderer’ walk free on bail. You’re locked up awaiting trial for months, perhaps longer. You’re still innocent though remember? Tesco or G4S may have won the contract to be a bulk provider of legally aided criminal defence work. They have been passed the case file. The case file contains hundreds of pages of evidence which is ‘seen’ and thousands of pages of evidence which is ‘unseen.’ Lawyers don’t get paid to review the ‘unseen’ evidence so it’s not looked at. The police didn’t have the time or resources to review it properly either. Little beknown to anyone at this point but in those thousands of pages of ‘unseen’ evidence there is one page which irrevocably proves your innocence. It proves that you could not have committed the murder. It casts light on how the evidence at face value points towards you. But under the new proposals your Tesco or G4S lawyer won’t have the time or resources to look at any of the ‘unseen’ evidence either. They will be processing crimes like this in bulk and for a small amount of remuneration. They want to make a profit. They have no interest in justice. The lawyer briefly looks over the ‘seen’ evidence and advises you to plead guilty. Nobody will ever discover the ‘unseen’ evidence. You go to court and you are convicted. The judge feels the circumstances of the case warrant a particularly high seriousness and you are given a minimum custodial sentence of thirty years. You’re only 20. You’ll be 50 by the time you ever have the chance to even think about walking free again. Your life is ruined beyond comprehension.

You will be the first of many who will fall victim to the proposals. Under the current system you will be given a solicitor who will take the time to look through all of the ‘unseen’ evidence. They will spot the page that proves your innocence and you will be acquitted.

The new proposals will convict the innocent and let the guilty walk free in so many situations. The new proposals will erode the fundamental rights of many. The fundamental freedoms in which this country was founded upon and those in which make us proud to be British. England is world renowned for having the best justice system in the world. This is soon to become a thing of the past through secondary legislation which will be pushed in through the back door.

The e-petition in which was mentioned in last week’s article has now reached over 31,000 signatures. As with all e-petitions, once they reach 100,000 signatures a sequence of events are triggered: The Leader of the House of Commons must write to the Backbench Business Committee, who are responsible for the scheduling of debates on e-petitions, informing them that the petition has reached 100,000 signatures. The Backbench Business Committee must then schedule a debate in Parliament on the matter, where it can be freely discussed, openly and democratically.

The e-petition is still gaining momentum but is still a long way from the target of 100,000 signatures. Please sign the petition. Please continue to tell everyone you know to sign the petition and please let’s not give up on the fight to save UK justice!

The e-petition can be found here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

Dale Timson

LLB Student & Aspiring Barrister

06/05/2013