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Tag Archives: Ministry of Justice

‘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The argument was that some providers had withdrawn from offering schemes for economic reasons and  the change would promote “sustainability” (that weasel word meaning anything and nothing).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

Criminal Court Charges: a return to pre-Victorian values

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We need a tougher justice regime in these austere times – so why not bring back Dickensian-style debtors’ prisons? We’re not there yet, but we’re several steps along the way thanks to the UK Government’s Criminal Court Charges.

Magistrates have become concerned that they are obliged to impose these new charges – and potentially to jail offenders if they fail to pay them. In contrast to imprisonment for defaulting on fines, the Criminal Court Charges are not discharged by serving time in jail. There are set maximum levels for time in jail according to the amounts outstanding. So, if the Charge comes on top of other fines and payments, it can mean longer periods in jail for each defaulter.

The Debtors Act 1869 abolished imprisonment for contractual debt in England and Wales. Parts of the Act are still in force and make clear imprisonment is still available for “Default in payment of any sum recoverable summarily before a justice or justices of the peace” meaning fines, compensation and costs. The Government has in effect created a new category of imprisonable debt. Prison may be used only when the individual is “guilty of wilful refusal or culpable neglect” in failing to pay – the same wording used in guidance regarding the Criminal Court Charge. The potential term of imprisonment depends on the level of the amounts due (See Schedule 4 to the Magistrates Courts Act and notes below). The failure to pay the maximum £1,200 Criminal Court Charge could be penalised by up to 45 days in prison – at a cost of about £90 a day – more than three times the Charge itself.
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Jeremy Wright’s rule of law: Justice shall not be sold – unless the price is right

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Dicey? Bingham? Or perhaps you prefer the Wrightean doctrine of the Rule of Law as it operates in the UK? For Jeremy Wright (the Attorney General for those who’ve forgotten – or perhaps never knew) has given us his thoughts on this complex and contested legal principle.

Generally “the rule of law” might be boiled down to a simple phrase: No one is above the law – even the Government. This though, is not the quite message Mr Wright wishes to get across. His speech “on the UK’s long commitment to the Rule of Law” was delivered at the London Law Expo in the City of London. The Expo is a sort of legal/business fest with, this year, Dragons’ Den man James Caan as keynote speaker. Wright’s intended audience, therefore, was the business community – specifically the international business community. What excites Wright is less Britain’s commitment to the rule of law, forged through revolts and rebellions and the slow painful birth of a democratic society. No, what excites him is this: that

“the numbers show just how successful the legal services sector has been: in 2012 it was worth over £20 billion, or 1.5% of UK GDP and contributed some £4 billion in export value. There were over 300,000 people employed in our legal services sector with over 200 foreign law firms operating in London and elsewhere in the country”.

Britain, for these reasons, is not just a place to do business. It is a place to do law. So the point of  the rule of law is: it’s good for business. “Our long commitment to the rule of law I believe, is of central importance to the British economy”. For Wright has very little interests in the philosophy or practice of the rule of law; rather he is concerned to established Britain’s (or perhaps only London’s) unique selling point: “All companies know that they will be judged by clear rules applied in accordance with the law.” The rest of the speech is a promotion of UK plc’s legal services. Somehow he even manages to spin the Libor scandal as a “good” story: Read the rest of this entry

Ministry of Justice’s 2½-year legal wrangle over ‘bullying’ Court of Appeal Master

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The UK Ministry of Justice has been caught up in a two and a half year legal wrangle with senior Court of Appeal lawyer accused of bullying conduct.

Robert Hendy, a Master in the Civil Appeals office, has been suspended on full pay in excess of £65,000 since December 2011 when two female lawyers made complaints about him. His conduct was said to be bullying and undermining of colleagues. Hendy denies all the allegations against him.

His dispute about disciplinary procedures reached the High Court this week where Mr Justice Mann said: “There were also allegations of casual racism, alcohol misuse, absenteeism and neglect of his official duties, both managerial and substantial” – though these have since been dropped.

The High Court had heard that after compiling a 70-page report on the matter, an investigations officer appointed under the MoJ disciplinary procedure, Stephen McAllister, concluded there was enough evidence to prove the bullying and harassment allegations against Hendy and that they should be considered serious and that specific allegations of bullying particular people should be regarded as gross misconduct. He made comments about his power to sack people and “He [McAllister] found that Mr Hendy made a number of sexual innuendo remarks over time, meant in jest but having an adverse effect on the recipient.”

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Judicial diversity: Lords call for positive discrimination and targets

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The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice should be under an obligation to encourage diversity in Britain’s judicial appointments – and targets for women and ethnic minority appointments should be set if diversity is not improved within five years, according to a House of Lords Committee.

Minorities should be given priority when the choice of appointee is between equally qualified candidates, says the report by the Lords Constitution Committee. Dubbed the “tipping point” procedure by the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, it would utilise Section 159 of the Equality Act 2010 which allows an element of positive discrimination where candidates are equally qualified. It cannot be used for judicial appointments, some argue, since judges must be appointed “solely on merit”, according to s.63 (2) of the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act (as explained here).

‘We do not consider that the concept of merit should be narrowly focused on intellectual rigour … a more diverse judiciary can bring different perspectives to bear on the development of the law and to the concept of justice itself’ Lords Constitution Committee

The committee’s report wants changes in the career structure for the judiciary as well as in work conditions – allowing more part time working and careers breaks as well as encouraging non-barristers to apply for higher judicial posts. The committee, in a series of hearings (all reported on Alrich’s Weblog), has heard calls for a more structured career option for judges, drawing on the skills of lower tier tribunal judges and chairs as well as advocates and also putting in place formal appraisal procedures and career development. Retirement age for Court of Appeal and UK Supreme Court judges should rise to 75 in part to give opportunities later in life to those who haven’t followed a conventional career.

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Ken Clarke gets his Henry VIII clause into judicial appointments

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We need to talk about Ken – in particular the UK Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke’s dangerous delusion that he has – or should have – Henry the Eighth powers.

As it happens, Clarke would make a rather good Henry VIII. Imagine Good King Hal as a bluff genial figure in the Carry On Henry mould, like the cigar-chomping Sid James, or perhaps with a bit of edge to him, something a little more like the Charles Laughton version – jovial but ruthlessness. Imagine, too, a man who by his proclamations can sweep away whole areas of constitutional law.

For this is what Clarke intends in his (as yet putative) Constitutional Reform (Reform) Act 2012 – the Act he is working up to “reform” the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act. This, for the first time in our history, enshrined separation of powers in our constitution – that the judiciary should be independent from the Executive and from Parliament.

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Ken Clarke defends plans for government role in judicial appointments

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The Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, has defended his proposals to give the government a bigger role in appointing senior judges, saying it would help in the important relationship between the executive and the judiciary.

Speaking at the 12th hearing of the House of Lords constitution committee into judicial appointments, he said: “I am in favour of no political patronage in appointments,” adding that his consultation paper, published late last year, makes it clear the Lord Chancellor would not take a direct role. “But with the [appointment of the] Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court, there should be greater involvement of the Lord Chancellor because the executive should have more influence in that, but not a decisive one.”

The proposal is for the Lord Chancellor (now Secretary of State for Justice, Clarkes’s preferred title, he revealed) should sit on the panels appointing the two senior roles.

He said: “The one absolutely immoveable thing is that we appoint on merit … The second thing that I regard as absolutely immutable is the independence of the judiciary. No suspicion of political patronage should come back.” He added: “We now have a system that makes it absolutely clear that it is independent of the political sphere.”

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A lesson from history: don’t politicise judicial appointments, says senior judge

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Parliament or government should not be brought into Britain’s judicial appointments process, a senior judge has told a House of Lords committee. To bring politics back into appointments “would be against our own history,” said Lord Justice Toulson, vice-chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC).

His comments follow suggestions from the Ministry of Justice that the Lord Chancellor, who is a member of Parliament and political appointee to the Cabinet, should have more power in judicial appointments. An MoJ consultation paper asks whether he should sit on panels appointing to the most senior judicial posts (President of the Supreme Court and Lord Chief Justice) and/or should have power to give his view on short lists of candidates for other senior positions (Lord Chief Justice, Heads of Division, Senior President of Tribunals and Lords Justices of Appeal). At present the Lord Chancellor simply has a limited veto of the single name presented to him in each case.

The Judicial Appointments Commission is an independent body set up under the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act. Toulson told the Lords Constitution Committee at its eleventh session on judicial appointments that the power the Lord Chancellor had over the JAC was a narrow one, deliberately limited by Parliament. The JAC was not a servant of the Crown.

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Ken Clarke’s piratical band hijacks judicial appointments inquiry

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What, it must now be asked, is the point of the House of Lords Constitution Committee hearings on judicial appointments?

The committee set out in fair weather in the summer on a stately voyage to explore the waters of the British constitution with the aim of balancing accountability, independence, transparency and the need to foster diversity in judicial appointments.

Meanwhile the oily-fingered engineers in the dark recesses of the Ministry of Justice, headed by the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, were constructing a less majestic vessel which they launched as a public consultation document last week – Appointments and Diversity: A Judiciary for the 21st Century.

This seems not only to have taken the wind out of the Lords committee’s sails but to have hijacked the process altogether, with some pretty clear plans – among them proposals to bring a political role back into judicial appointments. Cap’n Ken and his piratical crew are steering the debate, full steam ahead, into waters very much of their choosing.

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Kenneth Clarke: there should be a positive duty to appoint women and ethnic minority judges

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Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has announced a plan for “positive action” in judicial appointments to favour women and members of ethnic minorities and promote diversity. He wants to put an obligation into the appointments procedure to choose a person from an under-represented group when there are candidates of equal merit and increase posts for part-time judges.

Clarke told Woman’s Hour: “One of the more straightforward things I’m suggesting is that we enshrine in law for the resolution of doubt that other things being equal when you have two candidates of equal merit, you should prefer the under-represented group . There’s nothing wrong in that.”

The announcement suggests he will go further than Labour’s Equality Act of 2010, which allows employers, if they want, to choose a candidate from an underrepresented group in “tie-break” situations (see guidance note below). He envisages a change in the law for a “tie-break provision” making positive action in such cases obligatory for judicial appointments. Read the rest of this entry

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