Archive | May 2013

Is £52.50 too much to ask of the tax payer to ensure a 16 year old is released from jail and able to sit her GCSEs? Why the Save UK Justice campaign is so important.

Once again I am wading into the legal aid debate.  This blog is not aimed at lawyers, what I have to say in this blog is nothing new to them.  But this will be new to the majority of the public who are being bombarded with misinformation by the Ministry of Justice about the legal aid bill.  This is a longwinded explanation, but please bear with it.  The Ministry of Justice has added a response to the Save UK Justice epetition set up by criminal lawyers.  In that response it is stated that the firms given the contracts for legal aid work will have to show they have competent and capable lawyers.  In my eyes, competent and capable is not enough, those of us who have been doing this work for years do it because we are committed to our clients, and I like to think that all the criminal lawyers I know are way above competent and capable – they are experienced, passionate and dedicated, they understand that with clients, the law is actually only a small part of the service.

Last week I was in the youth court representing a 16 year old youth (X) who had been charged with an offence of violence on the basis of a drive by identity carried out by a shaken and upset teenage victim.   X had been remanded in custody.  I arrived at court, to find X’s very distraught parents, and quite understandably so.  Their child who had never been in trouble before, had been held in the police station overnight – and that in itself was enough to send mum over the edge.  Her child had been locked in a cell all night, on their own, in a large police station in an area where hardened criminals are arrested daily.   Worse still, X was a good student, predicted A and B grades in GCSE exams, one of which was taking place that day!

In the cells I met X.  To use the phrase ‘a rabbit in headlights‘ is an understatement.  Having been held in the police station all night, and then transferred in a prison van to a cell in the court, searched in the police station, and again in the court cells, denied an opportunity to speak to mum and dad, and denied the use of the phone, and then told that the case would be ‘heard when its heard’, by the time I arrived in the cells, just after 9am, so much damage had been done it took me 15 minutes just to calm X down enough to get any sense out of her.  It took another 30 minutes to get all of the information I needed out of her.  Anyone who has teenage children or who regularly deals with teenagers will understand that the task of drawing information from them is not a simple task, made even worse when it is accompanied by sobbing at regular intervals and the need for constant reassurance that X would not have to go to prison.

Having obtained the information I needed from X and carried out more reassurance, and requested that a female custody officer in the cells take X a drink and sit with her for a while just to keep a check on her, I headed back up to see mum and dad.  I had to then start the whole reassurance again with mum who bombarded me with questions – Was X ok?  Had X eaten breakfast?  Had I told X that mum and dad were there for her?  In the meantime, dad paced the floor, getting more and more agitated and frustrated.  I set dad on the task of contacting the school and finding out what could be done about X missing the GCSE exam, and calmed mum by asking her to tell me more about X.

In between this, I had passed word to the court that I was ready to get X into court as soon as possible, and had negotiated with the Prosecutor that this was not a case where X needed to be remanded in custody, and agreed bail conditions.  X’s case was called on by 11.30am and I explained to the court what I had found out about X, how I saw weaknesses in the Prosecution case, not least the fact that the victim did not get a good look at her attacker’s face, but could describe the attacker’s clothing and bag.  What she had actually described was a school uniform and bag which which was worn by at least 500 girls in that area.  In which case it was highly probable that the victim had picked out X on the basis of the uniform and the bag and nothing more.  In addition, X’s future was in jeopardy as she had a place at college to study A Levels but would lose that if she could not sit her GCSE’s, and  I was very concerned about X’s wellbeing even after one night in a cell.

X was released on bail, with the next court date set for a time that did not interfere with the rest of her GCSE exams, and was released from the court in sufficient time to get to school and sit her exam.

As X is a youth, she was entitled to legal aid for my handling of her case.  My legal aid fee for that morning was £52.50 (including my £9 travel).  I do not profess that I am worth more than £52.50, nor do I think I did anything more than any of my criminal legal aid colleagues would have done, but I do think that to be good value and not a waste of tax payer’s money, ensuring that X was able to get to her GCSE exam and preventing a young life being damaged (possibly beyond repair) both educationally and emotionally.

Hence, when the Ministry of Justice makes noises about ‘Fat Cat’ lawyers and the highest legal aid bill in the World, it is interesting to note that they cannot back it up with examples, yet myself and my criminal legal aid colleagues can provide thousands of examples such as these….the real people that the cuts will affect.   Ask yourself, if it was your 16 year old in the cells, would you want them to be given a representative who is merely competent and capable, or alternative  a dedicated, experienced criminal lawyer who cares….

X’s dad sent me a text…’can you send me the link to the petition….can’t put a value on your service…priceless 🙂 ”  So here is the link… if you want to be able to choose your lawyer, and don’t want the expertise to be replaced with a representative from a large corporation who is classed as ‘competent and capable’  please sign this epetition and pass it to others… Save UK Justice epetition

It has been questioned why we are fighting so hard to get to the 100,000 signatures on this epetition.  The Ministry of Justice intends to implement these cuts via secondary legislation, which means it does not have to be voted on in either the House of Commons or House of Lords.  Hence the only way we can get a proper debate in Parliament on these proposed cuts is to get to 100,000 signatures.  Please don’t let the Government bypass democracy and introduce these cuts without a vote.

Finally, in typical lawyer disclaimer style…some of the case details have been changed to further protect the identify of X.

If you have read this far…thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings!

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Brighton and Hove Albion v Crystal Palace – Hopefully a Better Fan Policing Experience

Last Friday ahead of the CPFC v BHAFC match I blogged about the restrictions in place and how they were unworkable.  If you didn’t read my blog, it is below, including a letter to the Met Police Commissioner and a statement about police powers of stop and search.

Hopefully this can be a more positive post.  I have heard from Sussex Police who have asked that I pass the word around.  They have no intentions of stopping fans and asking to check their tickets and ID, nor are they going to ask stewards to do the work for them.  Obviously the usual rules regarding stop and search still apply, so if they think that an offence has been committed, or there is a risk of an offence or disorder, they reserve the right under PACE to stop and search, and take a person’s details.  But they do not intend to engage in the draconian restrictions I refer to in my blog below.

I know some fans were treated like criminals on Friday, forced to provide their details before entering the stadium and held for so long that they missed kick off.  Hopefully this will not happen at the Amex.

Wishing you all a great match experience, no matter who you support, and if you see me on the train or around the pubs on Monday night touting the #SaveUkJustice epetition, please come and say ‘Hi’ and sign the petition.  Hopefully you will never need legal aid and the services of a lawyer, but you should ‘never say never’.  Infact any challenge to actions, such as the Met Police behavior last Friday, will probably not be possible unless we are successful in defeating the proposed amendments to legal aid and judicial review

The pre and post match info can be found here Seagulls Pre and Post match entertainment and travel.

If you want a handy guide to stop and search laws, download the stop and search app

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I know the restrictions placed on fans traveling to the Crystal Palace v Brighton and Hove Albion match today and the reverse on Monday have  caused concern among fans. I have received emails and tweets criticizing the ‘draconian’ measures, with questions such as ‘since when did ID cards come in through the back door?’ and I agree that they are draconian, and more importantly I believe they are unworkable.  They don’t take into account the lack of powers a steward has to stop a fan, it is certainly not clear why there could be the need to stop and check fans when they are traveling home, and I think they open both the police and the Clubs up to legal challenge.   See my letter to the Met Police Commissioner here Signed Letter To Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe on police restrictions on fans at the CPFC v BHAFC matches 10th May and 13th May 2013   The FSF have also produced a handy guide Statement-from-Lochlinn-Parker

However, the reality is that if the police do stop you and ask for your ID, if you want to go into the match you will probably have to hand it over.  You can guarantee that there will be a large police presence at both matches and the first sign of discontent among fans will bring a risk that dispersal notices will be considered.  The dispersal notice means an instant ban from the match, and probable arrest if you refuse to leave the area.  We can bring the legal challenges afterwards, but by then it will be too late you will have missed the match, and worse..

I will keep you updated with the progress of my letter and the Freedom of Information requests on the decision making behind these restrictions, in the hope we can prevent this happening again in the future and to other fans…. but I could do with a few days off over the Summer, so please, don’t get nicked for kicking off with the police or a steward…and definitely…no smoke bombs!

#SaveUKJustice Open Letter to the NUS on the damage the proposed Legal Aid cuts will have on students

Are you a student?  You live a law abiding life, but you cannot say that you will never need the services of a legal aid lawyer.  
  • Its end of term, you and your housemates go into town to celebrate, one of them gets into an argument over a spilt drink and before you know it you are defending your friend who is being attacked for accidentally knocking the drink out of someone’s hand.  The doormen arrive just as you are pushing the attacker away.  They drag you off as they see you as the aggressor, throw you out of the pub and straight into the arms of the police who are outside.  You protest your innocence, but you are arrested on suspicion of assault.  In the police station you request a lawyer, explain the incident and the lawyer makes enquiries with the club, obtains the cctv footage, takes statements from your housemates, and ascertains that you were acting in self defence.  The case is dropped when representations are made to the Crown Prosecution Service, and you go back to Uni at the beginning of the next term, no harm done.

POST LEGAL AID REFORMS 

  • Same incident, but you get to the police station, you ask for a representative, they arrive after a few hours, tell you they are very busy, they don’t have the time or the funding to search for the CCTV footage or take statements from your friends.  They read the account of events that the doormen give to the police and tell you that on this account you are clearly guilty (and in any event they only get paid if you plead guilty).  You try to explain, and also make it clear that if you are convicted you may not be able to return to Uni in the new term as you may be kicked off of your course,  but they again tell you that on the evidence they have seen you should plead guilty.  You are obviously upset about this and try to find another legal aid lawyer to represent you, one who will listen to your side of the story, but you are told that you have to stay with the original lawyer (who has told you to plead guilty) as the legal aid funding no longer allows you to change lawyers for one that you trust.  The only other option is to go into court unrepresented.  You go to court, plead guilty as you have been told to do, your University finds out and before you know it you have been thrown off of your course..your future plans are in tatters due to the fact you were denied the use of a fully qualified, experience legal aid lawyer who would act for you and not be a slave to balance sheets and financial targets.
Please take notice of the Save UK Justice Campaign before it is too late…once this Government destroys legal aid there will be no chance that any future Governments will bring it back.  Students are a very strong voice, please make use of this…to help those who need legal aid, as you never know, it may be you.
This is not a call to arms to help protect lawyers, I have been very vocal about the fact the lawyers must help themselves. However, this is not a fight that can be won alone.  See my letter to the NUS below.

Open Letter to the President of The National Union of Students

 

26th April 2013

 

Dear Liam Burns,

 

As I am sure you are aware, the Ministry of Justice has issued a consultation paper titled ‘Transforming Legal Aid’. In reality the proposals in this paper do nothing to transform legal aid and everything to destroy criminal legal aid, remove the opportunity to challenge the actions of the state through judicial review of state decisions, and will decimate the young criminal Bar and criminal solicitors.

 

I am writing this to request your assistance in informing your student membership about the impact these proposals may have on them. Firstly in taking away their rights, especially when considering that a large proportion of students will not be able to afford to pay for legal representation, hence relying on legal aid, and secondly in destroying the area of the legal profession that many of your students aspire to join, at no small expense to themselves.

 

I do not profess that all your members will require the services of a criminal lawyer or have need to challenge the State through a judicial review action. However, the legal system of England and Wales is prided as being one of the best in the World, and legal aid is one of the essential elements of this system. Such that if anyone is unfortunate enough to need a lawyer, one will be available to them, even if they cannot afford to pay for one privately. Under the Ministry of Justice proposals, a two tier system of representation will be created. The consultation document makes it clear that one of the current complaints of the Ministry of Justice is that many criminal lawyers provide an ‘above acceptable’ service. In other words, a privately paying client is entitled to an above acceptable service, but a legally aided one is only entitled to ‘acceptable’.

 

The destruction of criminal legal aid, and the profession for young criminal lawyers cannot be seen in isolation of each other. If the Government presses ahead with its proposal, this will, without doubt result in the destruction of many solicitor firms, and a drastic slimming down of the young criminal Bar. To put it bluntly, it is like the Government informing medical students who are reaching the final stages of their studies and training that there will no longer be any GP’s and that all the studying and training has been wasted.

 

A Legal Practice Course student explains it. “As a law graduate due to begin my training contract with a criminal law firm in eleven weeks’ time I find the proposals put forward by the Ministry of Justice wholly terrifying.

 

For many of my fellow law students, criminal law was what attracted them to study law in the first place. Put simply, it is hard to get a training contract, harder still to gain pupillage and the pay for both is appalling. Those of us heading for practice in criminal law know we won’t be earning as much as half of the salaries of our alumni cohort who chose commercial law. We know the hours are long and the work emotionally exhausting. But we accepted that. We worked hard throughout university for four (in some cases five) years ever-ready and keen to take up the challenge this unique area of law presents. We are passionate about the criminal justice system and dedicated to helping the people caught within it. If the Ministry of Justice proposals are implemented my future job will cease to exist by the time I qualify, replaced by underpaid under-qualified battery farmed legal advisors operating under cut-price government contracts delivering a sub-standard quality of service to clients who will no longer be able to seek advice from their chosen lawyer. The detriment this will have on vulnerable clients is immeasurable.

 

Please give us a chance to be assets to our clients and chosen profession by helping us show the Ministry of Justice how damaging these proposals will be.”

 

I urge your student members to join the criminal legal professions in the fight to Save UK Justice, and also to save the future profession of thousands of students, by signing the Save Uk Justice epetition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628 . If it reaches 100,000 signatures it is hoped that these proposals will be debated in the House of Commons. Students can also express their views by writing to their MP, or emailing me agurden@1gis.co.uk.

 

A selection of blogs on the proposals and the likely impact can be found at www.saveukjustice.net and updates can be found on twitter #saveukjustice and #notoPCT.

 

I thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Alison Gurden

Barrister

Bar Council Pro Bono Lawyer of 2012