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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Seven Penalty Points can bar you from the Bench!

I have a confession to make! There have been two occasions during my driving career when I have hovered on 9 penalty points. Until they dropped off my licence; I was the most careful driver imaginable, much to the annoyance of the lines of traffic that often gathered behind me.

On one occasion I picked up 6 points in one trip. I was heading to a meeting in Burnley in very poor weather. I did not notice the speed camera that caught me doing 35 mph in the 30 mph zone. Much to my annoyance and to the amusement of my friends, I was caught by the same cameras as I headed in the opposite direction on my way home.

I am now safely on 3 points and hope to stay there.

Little did I know when I was happily driving through Burnley that I was jeopardising any potential judicial career. On the way into the town I was a fit and proper person to be a judge. By the time I left I wasn’t.

This was the unfortunate experience of Welsh Solicitor Graham Jones who was refused a Full Time job as a District Judge because he had 7 points on his licence! He was described as an outstanding candidate and would have got the job but for the points. He took Judicial Review proceedings against the JAC which have been dismissed. Leveson LJ said –

“In my judgment, the JAC is entitled to take the view that public confidence in the standards of the judiciary would not be maintained if persons who are appointed to judicial office have committed motoring offences resulting in penalty points at the level identified in the guideline within four years of their appointment.”

Apparently he is still a fit and proper person to continue to sit as a Deputy DJ and has been encourage to apply again, when the points have gone from his licence. If I was him I would tell them where to put their advice. Is it just me or does this just show a complete disengagement from the real world. If he is a good and competent judge why should be debarred from a judicial career because he might have missed a speed camera. And why should he be any more or less acceptable once the points have gone.

The confessions I just made will no doubt bar me for ever. I haven’t even mentioned the two fines I picked up during an epic drive through Queensland last year.  And I was so looking forward to spending the rest of my days striking out claims where lawyers made marginal errors!

The lesson is this. If you have any ambitions to be a judge drive carefully. Or at the very least choose the option of a speed awareness course – it could be a decision that saves your career.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Stobart Barristers run out of gas

Much has been said, and written, about Alternative Business Structures and how they would change the world as we know it. The message was that major national brands such as Tesco’s would take over the provision of legal services and the days of the traditional law firm were numbered. As it was, Tesco’s showed no particular appetite.

One business which did go for legal work in a big way was Eddie Stobart, with their launch of Stobart Barristers,. This was a surprising move which I wrote about way back in June 2012 –

The question I raised back then was how they would bridge gap between the public perception of them at truckers and their ambition to be serious players in the legal market-place. They went for it in a big way. I attended a Legal Futures conference at which Trevor Howarth, then legal director, told us that High Street Firms were effectively finished and this was the model for the future. The name and clout of Eddie Stobart meant that he could provide legal advice from one of his barristers more quickly and cheaply than any of us could achieve. He was a good speaker and it was all quite convincing and worrying.

They caused controversy in 2013 with plans to bid for criminal legal aid work –

But it has now all come grinding to a halt like truck that has run out of fuel. Last week, they announced that they were no longer offering legal services to the public –

Mr Howarth explained that the decision was due to regulatory changes that meant that direct access barristers would now have to take greater responsibility for issues such as client care. That is a very telling statement. You can have the most well known name on UK motorways but if you cannot look after you clients you should not be in this market. Mr. Howarth has now left to set up a new business called One Legal.

So what now for the famed but mythical Tesco-Law? Co-operative Legal Services hardly set the world on fire –

The legal market might have appeared attractive. But it is a tough world which gets tougher by the day. ABS are here to stay and do provided commercial flexibility for many firms.

But does all of this mean that well known brands will stick to what they do best? 

Time will tell, but I think the cataclysmic changes that many predicted are still some distance away.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Concerning Eurovision, the Matrix, Grayling and suspended reality

Tonight in one of those nights that I look forward to all year, but which also sees most of my friends and family smile patiently, or exit the room. Yes it is Eurovision.  And this promises to be particularly entertaining with its mix of buxom Polish women doing the laundry, a trampoline act and a bearded lady from Austria who does in fact have a spectacularly good voice! Those who have deserted me will normally rejoin me for the voting when various geographical groupings will give top marks to their mates and the UK will finish near the bottom as we don’t have any mates in Europe

Eurovision is one of those moments when reality is suspended. Accepted norms of musical taste and cultural respectability are nowhere to be seen.

Which is a bit like the Matrix in which those things which are accepted as reality are virtual creations of a complex computer. We are drawn into that fascinating conundrum about what is fake and what is real life.

So where lies the tenuous link with our justice system? It is all to do with the erasing of reality as we have known it. It all began when we got the first non lawyer Lord Chancellor since the 17th Century. Now it might sound like professional snobbery to say that only lawyers can run the legal system. But it has led to a fundamental shift in the government’s perception of justice. For example Mr. Grayling wishes to severely curtail the rights of citizens to take actions for Judicial Review of political decisions. The Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has recently attacked these moves and also questioned the concept of having a Minister with a purely political agenda in charge of the courts –

"There needs to be a complete review of the implications of combining in one person these roles, and of the current structure of departmental responsibilities between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice," 

But this new reality is not limited to this. It is sweeping across the justice system like Genghis Khan. As Access to Justice has been virtually wiped out we are seeing the courts grinding to a halt as litigants in person try to negotiate the maze that many of us have navigated for years. One Court of Appeal Judge recently summed this up –

Mike Williamson says more about this at –

Only last week we saw a major fraud trial halted because Grayling cuts to Legal Aid meant that there was nobody to represent the Defendants –

But in fairness to Mr. Grayling he is not wiping out reality single handed. We have court rules that refer to ‘Relief from Sanctions,’ but which now mean the opposite. That phrase now fills litigators with fear as they know that the true meaning is closer to relief from constipation. Only alien abduction is likely to justify a one day's delay in lodging a document or worse still paying a fee.

And then on top of that the fees charged by the civil courts have just gone up by 80% because justice now has to be managed at a profit.

So you see; Eurovision, the Matrix and Civil Justice are not so far apart. And while we are at it let’s throw in a bit of Star Trek –

“It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Cameron gets trial halted due to Legal Aid cuts

One of the main concerns raised following the cuts to Legal aid has been that parties in both criminal and civil proceedings will end up having to represent themselves in court. The impact of this is already being felt across the courts system.

Family Courts are reporting a steep rise in the umbers who are representing themselves.

This in turn leads to long delays. Most lawyers and judges agree that a case involving Litigants in Person will normally take twice the time of one where the parties have lawyers. It can also lead to outrageous consequences for those parties. One victim of rape was recently, on the verge of being cross-examined by her attacker who did not have legal aid. Legal Aid was only granted following the threat of Judicial Review Proceedings against the Legal Aid Agency.

But the most embarrassing moment for the government has to be the Crown Court decision in Southwark today. This was a major fraud trial involving eight defendants. Due to the recent cuts in Legal Aid the Defendants were unable to get suitable legal representation for their Trial. It was argued, on their behalf that they would not get a fair trial. The Judge agreed and halted the Trial. He accepted that substantial efforts had been made to find a barrister to represent them. He said that it would be a violation of the legal process if they had to represent themselves.

To deprive someone of legal representation is indeed a violation of our rights as citizens. 

What is embarrassing for the Ministry of Justice is that the application to halt the trial was made by Alex Cameron QC – the brother of our own PM, who was acting free of charge. He told the court –

"The state has failed to provide adequate representation to allow the trial to take place…a stay is exceptional, but so is lack of representation in this country. We are worried about a fair trial. It's not the fault of the FCA but we do [blame] the state more widely."

Will these words of reason from a source close to home lead to a change of heart by the government?

Who knows? But it certainly raises a further question mark over the future of Minister of Justice Chris Grayling who has simply got it wrong and refuses to admit it. 

Maybe another member of the Cameron family will decide that enough is enough.