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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

It was 50 years ago today

I have given many public speeches over the years. To be honest I would be surprised and flattered if anybody remembered what I said 50 minutes later!

50 years ago today on 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King Jnr gave one of the most memorable speeches of all time to what was, then, the biggest public gathering in US history at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

This blog is all about Justice, especially for those least able to fight for themselves.
So I make no apology for simply quoting the final section of this great and memorable speech.

‘I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. 

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. 

With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring! 

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Judge criticises legal aid rules - and sort of praises 'the other profession.'

A recent case has highlighted the scandalous impact of recent legal aid cuts – a good thing. 

It has also illustrated the low opinion that some judges seem to have of solicitors – a bad thing.

But firstly let’s look at the case itself. Jennifer Marie Jones was alleged to have been in contempt of court and this was an application for her to be committed to prison. It is fair to say that there are few things more fundamental than the power of the state to deprive a person of their liberty. Ms Jones was not wealthy. In fact she was on low income. But she had a share in two properties which pushed her over the limit for financial eligibility for legal aid even though there was no hope of her raising the necessary cash in time for the court hearing.

She managed to find solicitors – Miles and Partners and a barrister Christopher Hames to represent her free of charge or Pro Bono to use the technical expression much loved by U2 fans –

The case came before Mr. Justice Munby who refused the application to commit her to prison. He also criticised the system that meant she had to rely on the generosity of lawyers willing to act for nothing. He called for something to be done to avoid this situation arising –

‘There is I am told, no other basis upon which public funding can be made available in a case such as this …. If this is really so, it might be thought that something needs to be done,’

He then went on to praise the barrister and the bar for its courageous stands against those in power. He was a little less enthusiastic about the solicitors –

‘The bar I am sure will never fail in its obligation to stand between the Crown and the subject in such a case. And the same goes I am sure for the other profession.’

The other profession? Had he forgotten who they are? Or could he not bring himself to say the words? The solicitors would have been her first port of call. They would have made the decision to represent her free of charge. They would have been the ones managing the entire case including finding a barrister willing to do waive any fees.

This case is an excellent example of solicitors and barristers working together to try and protect a person’s liberty. The case itself shows the shocking effects of rules which exclude people from state funded legal advice – even where the state itself is the other party.

But the whole impact is a bit diluted by the judge’s apparent reluctance to acknowledge the role of all of those who acted for her.   

Recent campaigns for justice have seen an encouraging unity across the profession.

Comments like this do not really help.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Minister tries to Defend the indefensible

We have recently had a response from the government to the growing number of critics of its decimation of the legal aid scheme. 

Writing in the Guardian, Lord McNally set out their case and claimed that their aim was to cut to cut costs not fair trials.

He refers to the total cost of legal aid in this country at about £2bn. But, remarkably he then only goes on to discuss criminal legal aid, as if the whole budget was spent on that. He is silent on virtual waste land that exists in relation to advice on debt, housing, welfare benefits and family problems.

Week on week we are hearing of the closures of Law Centres which can no longer afford to help those in greatest need. One Citizens Advice Bureau says that it can no longer offer representation in relation to Welfare Benefits Appeals as they simply do not have the resources available since legal aid was withdrawn.It is telling that those who appealed against ATOS decisions on capacity to work had a staggeringly high succeess rate - 

The minister seems to have nothing to say about these cuts. The ones which target the most vulnerable. Does he accept that they are indefensible?

He does make the predictable comment that the critics are mainly lawyers concerned about their own pockets – ‘I can understand why some in the legal profession feel bruised and are worried about how this might affect them.’ This is not only shallow but completely misconceived. The main providers of welfare benefits advice have been CABx and similar voluntary agencies.

Those lawyers who are likely to be hit, especially by price driven tendering, will be those who do the most difficult work, at the lowest pay for those most in need –

Lawyers are not complaining because of their own concerns. They are complaining because it is wrong.

Lord McNally says that suggestions that the poor will be excluded from criminal legal aid, are ‘simply preposterous’.

He does not say the same about excluding the poor from virtually the entire legal system.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The dark side of Twitter

I haven’t posted anything about Twitter and Facebook for a few weeks.

It all seems to have gone a bit mad!

Last week, two jurors were sent to prison for using Facebook and Google.  I the first case Kasim Davey updated his status with –

‘Wooow I wasn’t expecting to be in a jury deciding a paedophile’s fate, I’ve always wanted to f*** up a paedophile & now I’m in the law.’

In a separate case Joseph Beard tried to research his case using Google. Both were imprisoned for 2 months for contempt of court. As jurors they will have been told that they must base their decision on the evidence alone and certainly that should not discuss the case with anybody else.

This is again a reminder that the internet is in fact part of the real world and anything we say and do can have severe consequences if we do not stop and think.

Those jurors were thoughtless and are paying the price. But recent developments on Twitter are simply nasty. A number of high profile women have received threats of violence via the site. These have included references to rape and death, including bomb threats –

Historian Mary Beard has been on the receiving end of such threats and encourages victims to report them to the police just like any other crime - "There is no two ways about it, threatening to kill someone is a crime and that's what I and other people have done and I hope other women who get these threats will do the same."

Twitter itself has been criticised for a slow response. This has led them to take on extra staff to deal with complaints.

All of this is bound to lead to calls for tighter control over or even censorship of social networking sites whose influence is growing by the day. I cannot actually see that happening or even being a practical option. 

But this behaviour is clearly unacceptable. It is no more acceptable in the virtual world than in the real world, in fact there is no difference. Swift complaints to Twitter and the police seem to be the most effective option.

And for those who are simply careless the message is still – think before you tweet!!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Whiplash Report Part Deux

I mentioned on Wednesday that the Parliamentary Select Committee’s Report on Whiplash claims contained some comfort for victims and their lawyers. 

A more detailed read of the report gives further hope. Until now, the insurance industry has gone virtually all it has asked for from the present government. I have said before that they seemed hell bent on delivering the heads of victims on a plate for their insurance friends.

The report pulls no punches in criticising the conduct of insurers. One recurring theme is that many claims are not genuine. Despite this many insurers make what are known as pre-med offers. These are offers to settle which are made without a medical report. The committee was very critical of this behaviour –

‘We were surprised to hear that insurers will sometimes make an offer to personal injury claimants even before a medical report has been received. Insurers said that this illustrated the dysfunctionality of the current system because of the costs involved in defending claims…..Insurers must immediately put their house in order and end practices which encourage fraud and exaggeration. If not, the Government should take steps to protect motorists.’

The committee heard evidence that some insurers even pay out in cases where they suspect fraud. They accepted the recommendation of Liverpool Law Society that - "at the very least insurers should be required to consider whether it is appropriate to continue to pay compensation on claims that are considered to be fraudulent or exaggerated".

One thing that is often overlooked here is that fraudulent claims harm everybody. They harm genuine victims and their lawyers, they harm motorists who ultimately pick up the cost and yes they harm insurers. We have a common interest in weeding them out. This can be achieved by openness between the legal profession and insurers. Again the committee was concerned about the conduct of insurers – “Insurers and lawyers have a strong interest in preventing fraud so it is disappointing to hear legal witnesses say that progress in data sharing has been slow. We recommend that the Government encourage both parties to establish collaborative arrangements aimed at identifying and deterring potentially fraudulent claims.”

We are also being promised that cuts in victims rights are needed to reduce insurance premiums I know I’m not the only person who has serious doubts that we will ever see any serious reduction –

The committee shared those doubts saying – ‘We recommend that the Government explain how it will monitor whether or not motor insurers honour their commitment to ensure that any cost reductions resulting from proposed legal reforms are passed through to consumers in the form of lower premiums.’

So where does these leave victims who are inured in motor accidents through no fault of their own? The world has not changed over night. There are still major hurdles to overcome.

The most encouraging thing to come from the report is that it is written by a committee made up of MPs from all the main parties. When lawyers campaign, we are accused by the media of looking after own interests. This report shows that our concerns are genuine and that it is about time the government began to listen.