Tag Archive | "Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd"

So who is next?


No tears were shed when, following the 2015 election, Chris Grayling was removed from the role of lord chancellor. There were nevertheless raised eyebrows when his successor was announced – Michael Gove, another unqualified incumbent.

But many fears were allayed when he set about righting the mean-minded Grayling rulings, such as the severe restriction of reading material in prisons. He also promised a review of ongoing criminal legal aid reforms and said there were no plans for further cuts on top of those already announced.

Speaking of the “dangerous inequality at the heart of our system” he said: “There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can, for example, choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.” He also grasped the nettle of prison overcrowding with far reaching proposals for ‘new prisons for old.’

On civil justice he said: “The current system adds to stress at times of need, and restricts access to high quality resolution of disputes by simply being too complex, too bureaucratic and too slow.”

Then came the upheaval following the referendum, with the change of prime minister and the ministerial reshuffle which consigned Gove to the wilderness. His replacement, Liz Truss, completed a hat trick of non legally qualified lord chancellors.

She set out her views on sentencing and the prison population in an address to the Centre for Social Justice. She said that the problems boil down to four distinct areas: sentences are too long; prisons are too overcrowded to work; the wrong people are in prison; and the management of the prison population at the moment isn’t good enough.

She identified the biggest driver for prison growth in the last twenty years as the exposure, pursuit and punishment of sexual offences and crimes of violence, and a toughening up of sentences for these crimes.

In family courts “I will end the appalling practice of domestic abuse victims being cross-examined by their attacker” she said. She herself took flak from the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who launched a forthright attack for her failure last year to defend judges who were branded “enemies of the people.”

Introducing the Prisons and Courts bill, she said: “I want our prisons to be places of discipline, hard work, and self-improvement, where staff are empowered to get people off drugs, improve their English and maths to get a job on release,” she said.

The bill hopes to pave the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a first class court system. Protection of victims and vulnerable witnesses in the courts, along with a commitment to reform offenders in prison, are laid out in law for the first time. The bill will provide a better working environment for judges, with modern court facilities and better IT that will help manage cases more efficiently.

Across the country more than 2,000 new senior positions are being created for experienced prison officers on promotion. She concluded: “The answer to overcrowding is not to cut prisoner numbers in half. It is to make sure we have the right resources, the right workforce, the right buildings and the right regimes to reform offenders and turn their lives around (then) we will see our society become safer and our prison population will reduce.”

Now we have another hiatus caused by the election. How many of the enlightened proposals will survive? I will leave the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, to spell out the number of extra police officers required and the cost thereof.

Photo courtesy of mrgarethm on flickr

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Lord Chief Justice attacks the Lord Chancellor


Giving evidence to the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee this week, the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, launched a forthright attack on the justice secretary, Liz Truss, for her failure last year to defend judges who were branded “enemies of the people.”

Referring to the article 50 Brexit court case, he told the select committee Truss was “completely and utterly wrong” to say she could not criticise the media.

Last November, the ‘Daily Mail’ ran the headline “Enemies of the people” when the high court, on which Thomas was sitting, found against the government, forcing ministers to obtain parliamentary backing before triggering Brexit.

The lord chief justice told peers: “The circuit judges were very concerned. They wrote to the lord chancellor because litigants in person were coming and saying ‘you’re an enemy of the people…I don’t think it is understood either how absolutely essential it is that we [the judges] are protected because we have to act as our oath requires us without fear or favour.”

Referring to Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the Article 50 case, he went on to say:“It is the only time in the whole of my judicial career that I have had to ask for the police to give us a measure of advice and protection in relation to the emotions that were being stirred up.”

Lord Thomas’s intervention came after Truss told the Financial Times that judges should boost their image because they would come under greater scrutiny post-Brexit. She urged judges to “speak out about the important work they do to ensure that it is widely understood”.

Due to step down in the autumn after four years in office, Lord Thomas said he had intended to wait until a lecture he was planning to give in June to make public his opinions on the matter, but felt the need to do so now because of the lord chancellor’s comments and a newspaper interview she gave.

Pulling no punches he said: “I regret to have to criticise her as severely as I have, but to my mind she was completely and absolutely wrong. And I am very disappointed. I can understand how the pressures were on in November, but she has taken a position that is constitutionally absolutely wrong. It is Truss’s duty, as lord chancellor, to defend the judges.”

Truss said she supported freedom of the press and did not feel it was her role to tell newspapers what they should put on their front pages. She told the same committee earlier this month: “I think it is dangerous for a government minister to say, ‘this is an acceptable headline and this isn’t an acceptable headline,’ because I am a huge believer in the independence of the judiciary. I am also a very strong believer in the free press.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and it is the duty of the Lord Chancellor to defend that independence. The Lord Chancellor takes that duty very seriously. She has been very clear that she supports the independence of the judiciary but that she also believes in a free press, where newspapers are free to publish, within the law, their views.”

Image by FruitMonkeyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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Who is Mrs Miller?


As the lead claimant in a historic legal action against the prime minister, Gina Miller has been thrust into the national limelight, but the investment manager is no stranger to taking on powerful establishments.

She was born in Guyana but grew up in Britain. A serial entrepreneur, she is also a philanthropist. In her own words her focus is “supporting small heroic charities that are at the coal face of negative society trends”. The True and Fair Foundation also gives advice to other “time-poor philanthropists who wish to give responsibly.”

According to the ‘Guardian’, the 51-year-old co-founded the firm SCM Private in 2014, but she also set up the True and Fair Campaign in 2012 with her hedge-fund manager husband which called for more transparency, and an end to hidden fund charges and miss selling in the City of London’s fund management industry.

Now represented by Mishcon de Reya, she is leading the judicial review of the government’s triggering of article 50, which will start the negotiations about the UK’s exit from Europe. She is reported as telling ‘Business Insider’: “I believe these things should be debated and looked at in parliament. It would be the first time that we would have a proper, serious, grown-up debate about all the factors that will influence us leaving the EU. There should be a debate about the consequences for different sectors. MPs should listen to their constituents. Then, if MPs vote in favour of invoking article 50, primary legislation [should be passed].”

Miller is joined by other applicants including support from the crowdfund People’s Challenge.

Yesterday the High Court began a hearing of the legal challenge over Brexit in what has been described as the most important constitutional case in generations. Opponents are fighting to stop Theresa May triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave the European Union without a vote from MPs in Westminster. Government lawyers will argue before three judges that the Prime Minister is legally entitled to use the royal prerogative to commence Britain’s exit from the EU.

Three of the most senior judges – the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales – are hearing the challenge. The attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, will lead the government’s case and Lord Pannick QC, represents the lead challenger in the claim.

In a preliminary, but very significant, skirmish the government has been forced by a senior judge to reveal secret legal arguments for refusing to let parliament decide when and how the UK should withdraw from the European Union. The government had refused to allow its legal opponents to reveal before the case its explanation of why it ought to be able to use royal prerogative powers to trigger article 50. But in an order handed down by Mr Justice Cranston last Tuesday, he told both parties: “Against the background of the principle of open justice, it is difficult to see a justification for restricting publication of documents which are generally available under [court] rules.”

In the released documents, lawyers for the government argue that it is “constitutionally impermissible” for parliament to be given the authority rather than the prime minister and dismiss any notion that the devolved nations – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – will have any say in the process.

And, in a direct challenge to Downing Street’s authority over Brexit, the House of Lords constitution committee has published a report declaring that it would be “constitutionally inappropriate” for the prime minister to act on an advisory referendum without referring back to parliament.

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The impact of legal aid cuts


The number of people going to court without a lawyer has been rising since access to legal aid was cut severely in 2013. The less well off and those with children are more heavily represented in those litigating in person than any other group.

Research by the charity Citizens Advice has revealed that the stress, responsibility and loneliness of going to court without representation can mean “litigants in person (LiPS) achieve worse outcomes compared with their represented counterparts.”

It also showed 90% of people who had been LiPS found the experience negatively affected their health, relationships, work or finances. Some lost their jobs due to the pressure, while others got into debt due to court issues, including paying for photocopying and travelling to and from court.

Meanwhile, seven in 10 reported they might ‘think twice’ about taking a case to court themselves if they could not afford a lawyer.

The charity said it was only after people had been through the process of going to the family court that they realised the value of having a lawyer, with 70% saying that instructing a professional would have benefited their court experience. The lack of professional support has also placed intolerable pressure on the court system.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “For people representing themselves in the family courts, whether in a divorce case or to keep the legal right to see their children, the workload to prepare can be unmanageable. In extreme cases people are quitting their job so they have the time to do research before going to court.

“The stress of making your case against qualified barristers and navigating complex court processes without the right guidance can make existing mental and physical health problems worse.”

In January the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, delivered a warning about the legal aid situation in England and Wales. “Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most,” he said. “In consequence, there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.”

Three years after the government scrapped legal aid across much of civil law, more ‘advice deserts’ are emerging in the sectors that remain in scope. Several parts of England and Wales now have inadequate housing law cover which could give rise to potential conflicts of interest. A number of areas have no cover at all.

According to the ‘Gazette’ the Law Centres Network said: “Parliament’s intention in LASPO was that the most vulnerable people should still be able to access legal assistance. As evictions and homelessness rise steadily, a decline in housing legal aid uptake suggests that need is not being met.”

From the usual spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency we learn that the ’vast majority’ of England and Wales have access to LAA-funded housing advice. “We constantly monitor the situation across the country and we are actively seeking new providers in two areas,” the spokesperson said. “Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must ensure it is sustainable and fair for those who need it, those who provide services and for the taxpayer, who pays for it.”

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Deep divisions between the government and judiciary over court fees


In his annual report to parliament, Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said our system of justice has become unaffordable to most. In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.

He particularly drew attention to the steep increases in court fees, which judges formally opposed, meaning that the judiciary “whilst accepting the decisions by parliament to increase fees, remains deeply concerned about the effect on access to justice.” Read the full story

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“Justice system is now unaffordable to most”


Not just my view, but the considered opinion of the Lord Chief Justice (LCJ), Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in his annual report to Parliament. A fine way to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

“In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed,” he said, adding that steep increases in court fees, which judges formally opposed, have meant that the judiciary “whilst accepting the decisions by parliament to increase fees, remains deeply concerned about the effect on access to justice.” Read the full story

Posted in Criminal Justice, Legal AidComments (0)

Criminal courts charge to be scrapped


Lord chancellor Michael Gove inherited many ill-considered policies from his illiberal predecessor Chris Grayling in May. But few were more damaging to the fairness of the justice system than the criminal courts charge. Grayling introduced it, without any public consultation or parliamentary debate, during the last days of the coalition government.

The charges require defendants who plead guilty in the magistrates’ courts to automatically pay £150 for the privilege. Those who fight a more serious case and lose face a bill for £1000 (which rises to £1200 in the crown court). The charge is not means-tested, so ability to pay is ignored when it is imposed; nor do courts have discretion over its imposition.

MPs on the Justice Committee published a report in November in which they said the fee created “serious problems” and was often “grossly disproportionate.” The cross-party group’s chairman, Conservative MP Bob Neill, said the evidence they had received raised “grave misgivings” about the fee’s benefits and whether it was “compatible with the principles of justice.”

He said it created “perverse incentives – not only for defendants to plead guilty but for sentencers to reduce awards of compensation and prosecution costs.”

Meanwhile, the lord chief justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said the charge had “not gone correctly” and should be looked at again.

In a highly critical speech, Lord Thomas drew attention to the impact of the mandatory criminal courts charge and increases in costs for civil claims. “Steep rises in criminal and civil court fees are putting access to justice beyond the reach of most people and “imperilling a core principle of Magna Carta”, the lord chief justice said.

The Magistrates Association (MA) confirmed that more than 50 of its members had already quit since April over the issue. MA chairman Richard Monkhouse added: “We’re seeing some valued experienced magistrates resigning over the charge, which is a great shame and we believe we’ll see more go.

Gove has clearly had enough, and today he announced to parliament that the criminal courts charge for convicted defendants is to be scrapped from 24 December.

He said that the Ministry of Justice will review the entire structure of court-ordered financial impositions for offenders.

Since his appointment Gove has tried to repair the government’s relationship with the legal profession and has ditched many of Grayling’s most controversial policies. These include restrictions on prisoners receiving books, plans to spend £85m on a mega-prison in Leicestershire for young offenders, and selling British prison expertise to regimes with appalling human rights records. New contracts for criminal solicitors in England and Wales were expected to come into effect early next year but are now mired in complex legal challenge.

Grayling always proclaimed that there was no crisis in the prison system. Gove does not agree and has shown that his penal thinking inhabits a completely different world.

And so the unravelling of Grayling’s legal legacy continues apace.

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