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‘Inaccurate and misleading’: Judge rejects Legal Aid Agency’s attack on eviction advice service

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A High Court judge has delivered a devastating crtitique of the UK Legal Aid Agency over its moves to change the way people facing eviction or repossession of their homes receive legal help. A crucial part of his argument for the change was based on a claim that was “both inaccurate and misleading” – or, as will be seen (and thankfully this blogpost can be less circumspect in its language), what is commonly known as “untrue”. The LAA had claimed two lawyers organisations backed the changes. In fact they had not been asked for their view.

The arguments of the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency used to justify the change were “based on assumption or conjecture or, at most, ‘anecdotal’ evidence from a handful of un-named providers [of the legal services]”, said Mrs Justice Andrews, hearing a judicial review application brought by the Law Centres Network (pdf) in the High Court.

The matter at issue was the Housing Possession Court Duty (HPCD) schemes that seek to ensure on-the-day legal advice and representation for people in court facing repossession and eviction. They are largely funded by legal aid to the tune of £3.6m a year – 0.2% of the legal aid total – and in many cases not-for-profit organisations, including local law centres, have the contracts to do the work.

Around 2014 the Legal Aid Agency suggested the schemes should be subject to price competition for the first time and re-tendered in a more consolidated form – ie a reduced number of schemes covering wider areas rather than focused on local courts. (At around this time there were were 117 HPCD schemes covering 167 courts; this was to be reduced to less than 50).

The argument was that some providers had withdrawn from offering schemes for economic reasons and  the change would promote “sustainability” (that weasel word meaning anything and nothing). But Andrews found no evidence for either contention. Read the rest of this entry

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Nigel Evans legal fees: thank the Tories we don’t have to pay

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Friends of Nigel Evans, the British House of Commons deputy speaker cleared of nine sexual offences, have complained that he has been financially wiped out by £130,000 of defence costs in the court case. And wags of a legal disposition have pointed out that he has only his own Tory-led Government to blame.

Conservative MP for Northampton South Brian Binley,  a friend and flatmate of Evans, and Tory Bob Stewart have both pointed out Evans must pay his defence costs even though he was acquitted of all charges – and the Crown Prosecution Service criticised for pursuing them. And Evans himself now says the state should pay. But none of them has made the link with Section 16A of the Prosecution of Offences Act, added by amendment to the act by the notorious Legal Aid Act (LASPO) in 2012.

This stops defence costs being awarded for those not legally aided except under limited circumstances. Costs can be awarded: Read the rest of this entry

A question of standing: Grayling’s new attack on Judicial Review

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How do you decide what is in the public interest? Just ask the government. That, apparently, is UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s view in his latest proposals to curb judicial review.

There have been too many judicial reviews in the public interest, is what his argument amounts to. In the latest consultation on curbing JRs he says: “The concern is based on the principle that Parliament and the elected Government are best placed to determine what is in the public interest.” It doesn’t need judges, organisations or even ordinary people to do the job for them. “L’intérêt public, c’est moi”.

Among the matters in the public interest that Grayling draws attention to, one assumes because he would rather not have seen them brought to court, was an issue of whether Taliban suspects should have been transferred from the British authorities in Afghanistan to the Afghan government – putting them at risk of severe abuse. Grayling complains that their case was brought by a peace activist, Maya Evans, who was not a member of the Taliban nor a prisoner in Afghanistan – and so had no direct interest in the matter at all.

The judge in the case allowed her to bring it (in other words gave her standing) because of her expertise in such issues of human rights and the fact that Britain’s treatment of prisoners abroad is a matter of public interest.

But that is not good enough for Grayling. He suggests only people with a “direct” interest be allowed to bring such cases – the Taliban prisoners themselves perhaps. Read the rest of this entry

David Miranda Schedule 7 detention: Arbitrary or Alice in Wonderland?

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Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act, under which a Guardian journalist’s partner, David Miranda, was held for nine hours at Heathrow, is an odd piece of legislation – not least because, unusually for criminal law, it deals with people who are for the most part wholly innocent. It is drafted with the intent – and has clearly had the effect – of detaining large numbers of innocent people to ask them about their terrorist activities.

As a result about 70,000 people were detained under Schedule 7 in 2011-12 – of whom only 24 were then arrested for terrorist related offences.

The authorities are perfectly happy with this appalling hit rate. The official guidance to officers when they use Schedule 7 is as follows: “Examining officers must take into account that many people selected for examination using Schedule 7 powers will be entirely innocent of any unlawful activity … All persons being stopped and questioned by examining officers must be treated in a respectful and courteous manner.” (Examining Officers under the Terrorism Act 2000 pdf)

The advice points out that “The powers to stop, question, detain and search persons under Schedule 7 do not require an examining officer to have any grounds for suspicion against any individual prior to the exercise of the powers.”

This may seem somewhat bizarre: a crucial anti-terrorism power that needs not even the tiniest scintilla of evidence of a person’s involvement in terrorism before it is operated against that person; and a clear acknowledgment that, for the most part, the examining officer will be wasting his own and the traveller’s time. Read the rest of this entry

Joan Edwards’ will: whose money is it anyway?

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Joan Edwards was obviously one of those kindly but naïve souls who believe that governments do good and are capable, when using their discretion, of making good decisions about the use of other people’s money.

Her will, which left a £520,000 bequest to the UK government, shows her trusting nature – but did she make the intention of her bequest clear? Apparently not since the two governing parties were initially happy to split the money between them and then, within half a day of the bequest being publicised in the Daily Mail, somewhat miserably to hand it back.

But to whom should the money actually go? This seems, in modern American parlance, to be Trust Law 101: uncertainty of intention, risking making the bequest void – which would return it to the Edwards estate for a difficult decision about who the actual final recipient should be. Read the rest of this entry

Theresa May and the European Arrest Warrant: Assange awaits her decision

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British Tory MPs are furious that the Home Secretary Theresa May has gone soft on the European Arrest Warrant. Among others also annoyed at the UK Government’s U-turn, backing a new version of the EAW, will be Julian Assange – one of the victims of the measure that makes it easier to extradite alleged criminals without too much legal protection in their host countries. Assange, as explained below, might have benefited from a more nationalistic, less Eurocentric extradition regime.

The EAW is one of the 133 European Union law and order measures in the European Union Lisbon Treaty that May opted out of – and also one of 35 she wants to opt right back into, though in a reformed version. The EAW is one of those strange areas in which Conservatives and others on the Eurosceptic right are deeply concerned by human rights issues. Enfield North MP Nick de Bois for example, has summed up the EAW issue by saying “cooperation and expediency must not take precedence at the expense of fundamental judicial fairness, fairness and human rights”. (Nick de Bois MP pdf)

Gerard Batten, UKIP MEP calls the EAW “a tick-box defendant transfer form-filling exercise that neuters the discretion any national judge may have had over extradition to European Union countries”.

So what exactly are the perceived problems with the European Arrest Warrant? Read the rest of this entry

Anti-squatting law and the death of Daniel Gauntlett

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It is six months or so since the passing of a law criminalising trespassing in Britain and already there is – apparently – a tragic victim and – certainly – a nasty political row. The victim is Daniel Gauntlett, a 35-year-old unemployed man who died in the bitter cold on the step of an empty boarded up bungalow in Aylesford, Kent. Reports suggested police had been involved in preventing him breaking in to the house some time previously – “and so Mr Gauntlett, had taken the fatal decision to abide by the law,” according to news service KentOnline.

Campaigners against Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which criminalised squatting in residential property, believe the new law may be responsible for Mr Gauntlett’s death.

Some go further and are pinning the blame directly on MP Mike Weatherley, who introduced the anti-squatting legislation into the House of Commons, a suggestion pursued with unpleasant vigour – hence the controversy.

The claim against him is that he insists squatters are generally young, politically motivated leftists whose aim is to undermine notions of property, whereas here was a bona fide homeless man who died as a result of the new law.

In answer Mr Weatherley told the Kent Argus: “It is true that some of those who are homeless have squatted but this does not make them squatters. Read the rest of this entry

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