UK Justice Lags Behind in Transparency

The UK is lagging behind other jurisdictions when it comes to transparency, according to the Centre for Criminal Appeals. However, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) very much under public pressure to provide an open and transparent system, a new charter drawn up by the Centre aims to tackle these problems and bring the UK up to the standards of openness enjoyed by some other nations.

According to the Centre for Criminal Appeals, even the poorest of states in the USA currently enjoys a more transparent justice system than that of England and Wales. At the recent launch of the new charter, one of the speakers was attorney Dean Strang who took part in a recent, high-profile US case involving a miscarriage of justice. Specifically, he acted in the appeal of Steven Avery, who was imprisoned in Wisconsin for 18 years for sexual assault but was ultimately found to be innocent. Avery’s case was brought to the attention of the world through popular documentary Making a Murderer. At the event, Strang said that miscarriages of justice like the Avery case would be more difficult to uncover in England and Wales, and cited a lack of transparency as the key reason for this.

The availability of court transcripts was singled out as a key example of the way in which the UK justice system fails to provide the level of openness enjoyed by the USA and many other jurisdictions. In the USA, Strang said, members the media is able to obtain a transcript of a trial for very little expense. Those who hold sufficient stake in a case will automatically be entitled to access transcripts – often at public expense.

In England and Wales, by contrast, it is policy to erase recordings after seven years so unless the case is a recent one transcripts might not be available at all. If the media wishes to request a transcript of a trial and this is still available, then the fees can be much higher than in the US. The cost of obtaining a transcript can be thousands of pounds.

The new charter calls for the following reforms to support transparency in the justice system:

  • The defence counsel should have access to police documents unless the police are able to provide a valid reason to withhold them.

  • Access to all court recordings should be available at no cost. The charter also suggests that, if complete recordings are not available, this should constitute grounds for appeal.

  • Journalists should usually be allowed to visit and speak to prisoners, providing the prisoner in question consents. If such visits are not granted, it should be the responsibility of the governor of the prison to prove this is justified.

  • Those pursuing an appeal against a conviction should have a controlled level of access to evidence.

  • The Criminal Cases Review Commission should make materials available to applicants and their representatives.

“Alan Turing Law” Comes Into Effect

Today has seen Royal Assent given to the Policing and Crime Bill, which contained what has become popularly known as the “Alan Turing Law.” As a result the law, which pardons thousands of men prosecuted for homosexual acts prior to their legalisation in the 1960s, have now received posthumous pardons.

The act takes its name from wartime codebreaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing (pictured above). Turing was homosexual, and was famously found guilty of gross indecency after being caught engaging in sexual acts with other men. He was subjected to chemical castration, believed to be a major contributing factor to his decision to commit suicide two years later.

After an official apology was given in 2009, Turing was pardoned of his “crimes” posthumously in 2013, almost six decades after his 1954 suicide, and while the decision to do so was welcomed many campaigners felt like a single pardon, however high-profile the case, was of limited use as a symbolic gesture when so many others were still on record as criminals. These concerns prompted calls for a more wide-reaching pardon, which is what the act which comes into force today provides. Turing’s own relatives played a prominent role in launching campaigns for such a pardon to be delivered.

The act provides a posthumous pardon to roughly 49,000 gay and bisexual men who were found guilty of offences that would not be considered criminal today. Men who were convicted in this way and are still living can also be cleared of their crimes, but they have to apply for their statutory pardon rather than receiving it automatically.

The act applies to men found guilty of committing consensual sex acts with members of the same sex, and the decision to issue the widespread pardon was first announced last year. However, like all laws the act had to make its way through the necessary processes before it could actually be enacted, and now the act has received Royal Assent the pardon is effective from today.

The enactment of the pardon was described as a “truly momentous day by Sam Gyimah. The justice minister went on to say that “We can never undo the hurt caused, but we have apologised and taken action to right these wrongs.”

LGBT rights activists also welcomed the pardon and its passing into law. Major gay rights organisation Stonewall said that it represented “Another important milestone of equality” and that “The more equality is enshrined into our law books, the stronger our equality becomes, and the stronger we as a community become.”

The Role of Online Courts in the Future of Justice

There have been multiple calls for online courts from multiple quarters in the past few years, with the first digital court processes currently in development. Many of these have lauded the concept as a way to use contemporary technology to enhance the UK’s justice processes. However, there have also been reservations, and many of the concerns expressed about the concept of digital courts have also revolved around the integrity of British justice.

About Online Courts

Online courts would in many ways be similar to the small claims track, the closest thing the UK currently has to an online court which can often see financial cases settled through online forms with no physical court appearances. Details of the case and all relevant information would be gathered through online forms, and judges and legal professionals could access, review, and respond to the case remotely. This would, of course, be limited to certain kinds of case for which this kind of approach is felt to be sufficient.

Access to Justice

One of the key strengths that online courts could bring to the UK’s legal system is improving access to justice. Some people in remote rural areas are already quite a distance from their nearest court, and in an age when significant numbers of courts are closing to save costs many of these people are finding themselves further and further away from their “local” centre of justice. For at least some kinds of cases, online courts could provide many of these people with direct access to the courts without the need to travel to a specific physical location. On the negative side, while few have debated the advantages of this the Ministry of Justice has been accused of using online courts as an excuse for closing local courts, and an inferior substitute for keeping them open.

Quality of Justice

This is arguably among the more contentious issues surrounding the impact that online courts may have on how justice is done in the UK. Critics suggest that having cases dealt with online would make it harder to ensure that justice is done properly and fairly, and also express concerns about the fact that some online court proposals may exclude professional legal representation from a number of cases. Proponents of online courts, on the other hand, claim that for many cases an online system is entirely adequate without compromising on the quality of justice, and that by being easier to access and more affordable it would encourage a greater number of people to pursue justice in the first place.

Transparency Concerns Prompt Law Society Withdrawal From MOJ Group

The Law Society has withdrawn from a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) working group over concerns about the transparency of the scheme. The Society has been involved with the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) working group since 2015, but recently announced that it had written to inform the MoJ that it would cease to be a part of the group.

The Law Society of England and Wales is one of the most prominent and influential professional bodies for the legal industry. Representing the interests of both solicitors and the public, its withdrawal from the MoJ working group is significant if only because of the Society’s prominence in the UK legal landscape.

According to the president of the Society, Robert Bourns, the decision to withdraw from the working group was made after “restrictions on how information was shared meant it was not possible for us to contribute to the process in a meaningful way.”

The Law Society expressed concerns about restrictions on the open and transparent use of information, and in particular with its inability to share information and documentation with its own committee of experts. In particular, Law Society members of the AGFS working group “had concerns about late changes to proposals,” said Bourns, but were not allowed to confidentially discuss their concerns with the expert committee of the Law Society.

Bourns continued: “As we are unable to discuss with our expert committee, the Society feels unable to continue to participate in this working group.”

The Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme or AGFS is the scheme that governs legal aid payments for Crown Court advocates. Both barristers and higher court advocates are subject to the scheme, which the MoJ working group aims to review and potentially reform.

The Law Society of England and Wales said that it still intended to take part in public consultations on the review of AGFS, but did not feel that remaining an actual part of the working group would give any added benefit or influence under current terms. In a statement, the society president also made a point of stating that the Society would remain a part of another, related working group concerned with the legal aid payment scheme for litigators.

The Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS) working group, Bourns said, would continue to benefit from the involvement and contributions from the Law Society. The decision to remain in this group but withdraw from the other, according to Bourns, was that the LGFS group’s “current terms of engagement allow us to make a meaningful contribution with appropriate input from our committee.”

At-Risk Women Opting for Prison

Vulnerable and at-risk women are choosing prison over freedom because of fears about their safety or wellbeing, according to charitable bodies. Some women who have been released from prison are deliberately carrying out acts that will land them back in prison as they feel that they will be safer inside, or have better access to vital support.

There are a number of factors that may drive these women to feel a return to prison is preferable to life on the outside. Some have important needs, particularly mental health needs, that receive better support and treatment in prison than is afforded to them when on parole. Others fear for their safety, for example believing themselves to be in danger from an abusive partner or former partner, and still others are homeless and have nowhere to go except back inside. Roughly 60% of women leaving prison are homeless upon release, and their situation is often compounded by a shortage of both temporary and permanent accommodation, and by difficulty in accessing benefits.

For many of these women, effecting a return to prison simply involves breaching the terms of their parole. Others take more drastic action, committing new crimes in order to obtain a fresh sentence. A number of charities that work with women who are or have been in prison are reporting this phenomenon, and it is said that such vulnerable women are particularly likely to seek a return to prison in the period around Christmas.

The leader of one women’s centre in Birmingham, Joy Doal of the Anawim project, says that the Christmas period is “a really difficult time if they haven’t got a family… For some, prison is a place where they will feel safe. They get three meals and a bed for the night.”

Women in Prison‘s policy and campaign manager Claire Cain also spoke of the difficulties faced by many women upon release from prison. She said the organisation frequently encounters women who are in a situation where they have only three options: “to stay in an abusive and exploitative flat, surrounded by drugs and alcohol that they are trying to keep free from, end up on the streets, or reoffend and go back to prison.”

Many of the women in question have, at least initially, only served quite brief sentences. Most have committed non-violent crimes, and in a number of cases they have been pressured into crime in order to help fund the drug addiction of a partner.

According to campaigners, the situation reflects a lack of commitment to providing support services for vulnerable women. Others have claimed the fact women are choosing prison over life on the outside as an indictment of the lack of funding and resources allocated to the social support net that they must rely upon after release.

Hello world!

Hi, I’m Levinson – welcome to my blog! Yes, its about law and justice, but no, its not boring!!!

The law is not always concerned with staid and dreary lawsuits; sometimes there are cases that are odd, to say the least. To start off my blog, I bring to you a collection of some of the most unusual cases to have been heard in the UK.

  • Tracey Ormsby, a Policewoman, tried to claim £1.5million damages when she was hit on the head by a pineapple. The judge saw sense and reduced her award to just £3000.
  • Lord Justice Ormrod, Lord Justice Dunn and Mr Justice Arnold made a memorable ruling in 1980, when they agreed that a woman who rationed sex to her husband was ‘acting reasonably’.
  • Cathy McGowan won a car on a local radio station, only to be presented with a toy one when she went to collect her prize. The court ruled that Radio Buxton pay her £8000 – the value of the apparently price Renault Clio – as they had entered into a legally binding contract.
  • Schools were subject to a High Court order that they must inform children watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, the famous Al Gore climate change film, that it contains ‘partisan political views’.
  • Brian Clapton, a butcher, was subjected to a court order banning him from chopping meat too loudly between the hours of 6am and 8am.
  • Procter and Gamble, the major multinational, managed to get a court to rule that Pringles are not, in fact, crisps, thus saving the company thousands in VAT applied to such products.

The law can be a strange beast, and some of the above are cautionary tales that show exactly why you should fight your corner if you believe you are not being fairly treated.

Often, the outcome of a case may be far from certain.

Levinson for Justice!!!