JUSTICE WATCH Painful to watch! ~ LEGAL VOICE, 9 September, 2016.
The new Lord Chancellor made a rather unpromising debut before the House of Commons’ justice committee this week. ‘Labour branded Justice Secretary Liz Truss “shambolic” after the newly promoted minister appeared to signal a U-turn on prison reform before being overruled by No 10,’ began the Daily Mail’s coverage.
The committee’s chair – and Tory MP – Bob Neill told the minister he was ‘perplexed’ by an apparent ‘rowing back’ on her predecessor Michael Gove’s programme of prison reforms.
Labour’s Rupa Huq asked all the right questions about the legal aid cuts, the possibility of a LASPO review, court closures etc but failed to elicit a single response with any meaningful indication as to policy direction.
‘New justice secretary Liz Truss was giving little away as she faced questions before the Commons justice committee today,’ as the Law Society’s Gazette put it. ‘… MPs on the committee toiled for around 90 minutes but were unable to get any detailed steer on policy or what proposals for prison reform, courts and human rights she may be considering.’
As the Gazette (fairly) noted, Huq’s question about a review of the 2013 legal aid cuts was met by ‘the standard response’. ‘In principle we do have a system which is generously funded,’ Truss said.
It was ‘unfortunately apparent’ that Truss was ‘no way near being on top of her brief and it seems she has no feel for or interest in justice issues’, reckoned legal blogger David Allen Green in the FT. ‘At times her select committee performance was painful to watch. In one telling exchange, she did not even know or care about the significant fact that a prisons bill had been promised in the last Queen’s Speech. The shambles were such that there had to be a “clarification” as to what the minister had really meant.’
That said, Green reckoned it wasn’t really her fault (‘She did not ask for the job and she certainly was not seeking it…’).
David Allen Green
Meanwhile, Alex Cavendish, author of the UK prison blog, was despairing as to what’s Truss appearance meant for prison reform.
Cavendish also found the new lord chancellor ‘painful to watch’. ‘Perhaps only her very unlamented predecessor but one, Chris Grayling, had managed to put on such a poor performance.’
A draft bill has been launched by the Hillsborough families, supported by their lawyers, which promises to see public figures prevented from minimising responsibility at inquests.
The Guardian reported that the lawyers for the families ‘believe proceedings were rendered unnecessarily complex and lengthy because police, including the former chief constable of South Yorkshire police, David Crompton, and other officials approached the inquests in a defensive manner aimed at minimising their responsibility’.
You can check out the Hillsborough Law website here.
It says: ‘The Hillsborough Law aims to ensure that public authorities and public servants tell the truth and act with candour, especially with respect to court proceedings, inquiries and investigations. This will help public institutions and further the public interest by contributing to the creation of a culture of integrity and openness, rather than institutional defensiveness.’
The Hillsborough Law – known as the Public Authorities Accountability Bill – ‘codifies the public law duty of public authorities and public servants to tell the truth and act with candour’.
Inequality of arms
Meanwhile the Gazette reported that the chief coroner has called for bereaved families to be given ‘exceptional funding for legal representation in cases where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested parties’.
‘Many less complex or contentious inquests are conducted entirely satisfactorily in the absence of legal representation for interested persons, including some cases involving the state,’ Judge Peter Thornton QC said. ‘But in some cases the inequality of arms may be unfair or may appear to be unfair to the family. It may also mean that the coroner has to give special assistance to the family which may itself give rise the appearance of being unfair to others.’
Thornton recommended that Liz Truss amend the exceptional funding guidance providing funding for legal representation for the family ‘where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested persons’.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon agreed. ‘It is a fundamental principle that the law should be a level playing field and the chief coroner is right to support calls that families of the bereaved should have access to the best legal representation, and the way to do that is through the legal aid system.’
A history of failure
The Law Centres Network began a legal challenge to the Government’s decision to award the contract for operating the national discrimination advice helpline to G4S this week.
LCN argues that ‘the government did not properly assess the shortcomings of the Equality Advisory and Support Service with stakeholders; nor did it properly consider how to reform EASS with the independent equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’.
It also argues that government ’failed to properly consider G4S’s equality and human rights record in the many other public services it has delivered’
‘This legal action is about ensuring access to justice for some of the most disadvantaged and often vulnerable people in society,’ commented Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network. ‘It is already difficult for people to access appropriate advice on discrimination and human rights, which are complex areas of law. Our concern is that government does all it should to ensure that the most suitable provider is chosen, and that the service is effective.’
Why does the government trust G4S to run a discrimination helpline? asked Bella Sankey for politics.co.uk. ‘G4S have a history of failures that makes them particularly ill-suited to running a helpline for those affected by discrimination,’ she argued.