Tag Archives: Criminal Legal Aid

#DefendLegalAid

I have spoken a few times before about how important I know Legal Aid is to people. I have no intention, at the moment, to retread that ground.

I have spoken also, about the cuts made to tLegal Aid and how much more difficult it will make Access to Justice for those mos tin need of it.

That’s why today, I’m very proud that the Law Society of Scotland has launched its #DefendLegalAid campaign.

I hope that Lawyers form all across Scotland, and politicians from all parties, can get behind this campaign, work to fix the Legal Aid System in Scotland, and ensure that we protect Access to Justice for those in the country who need it most.

 

State Aid for Private Prosecution

The Glasgow Bin Lorry case continued to march on this week as Michael Matheson, the Scottish Justice Secretary, announced that Legal Aid would be provided for the families seeking to bring a private prosecution against the driver, Harry Clarke.

I don’t think the private prosecution will succeed, but I don’t want to swell on the merits of the action itself here. I want to look at the decision to provide state funding to let the families make their case, and specifically, why it is a decision that should raise more questions than it so far has. I might be useful to have Matheson’s statement to refer to:

“Private prosecutions are, and should remain, exceptionally rare in Scotland. However, in light of the unique and special circumstances of this case, which raises fundamental questions that have not previously been tested in case law, Scottish Ministers believe it is in the public interest that all parties are adequately represented.

As such, Ministers have agreed to make legal aid available for the families of the Bin Lorry tragedy.

In line with human rights requirements that anybody facing potential criminal prosecution must be legally represented, legal aid will also be made available to the driver of the bin lorry, Mr Clarke, and to Mr Payne in relation to another potential private prosecution in separate case.

The issue of whether there are exceptional circumstances to justify a private prosecution is a matter for the High Court alone and do not form part of this legal aid decision.

Responsibility for deciding whether or not to prosecute an alleged criminal case in Scotland rests clearly with the Crown Office which has a strong record in prosecuting crime.

The determination is not being made on the basis that Ministers agree that there was any error in law in the decision by the Crown. The Lord Advocate has set out publicly the basis for the decision not to progress a prosecution following the Bin Lorry tragedy.”

In short, the Scottish Ministers have decided agreed that Legal Aid should be made available to the families bringing the private prosecution. They have an ability to do this under s.4(2)(c) of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 – though it is unusual, with matters usually being handled by ever solicitor’s favourite body, the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Matheson states that the reason this extra-ordinary step has been taken is because this of the “unique and special circumstances” of the case, and the fact it asks “fundamental questions” that haven’t previously been raised. My first question would be to ask what are the “special circumstances” and what are the “fundamental questions”?
The jurisprudence behind Private Prosecutions in Scots Law is quite clear with the Carol X  case providing a hand book in itself. In short, there have to be “very special and exceptional circumstances” to allow a private person to bring a prosecution when the Crown has already declined to do so. The prosecution can’t be unfair towards the accused person; must have sufficient evidence and it must be in the public interest to prosecute.
These are considerations Prosecutors in Scotland face delay. Does the case prove? Is it in the public interest? We know, thanks to the Fatal Accident Enquiry that there is nothing the Crown Office didn’t know when it decided not to prosecute that it ought to have known. It seems there are no special circumstances.

What then of “fundamental questions”? The rules for Private Prosecution, as I’ve said, are  not dubious. Whether these particular facts fit into these is a different question, but not one of fundamental judicial importance.
It’s not particularly clear what the victims’ families propose to charge Mr. Clarke with. There can’t be any questions relating to the development of Scots Criminal Law more generally – if only because we don’t know where hey would be coming from.

Unless the Justice Minister chooses to elaborate (and for reasons I’ll discuss in a second, it is unlikely a fellow Member of Parliament will ask him to), we are unlikely to gather any further information from him. So, what could it be?
From the moment the tragedy occurred, it has big news in Scotland. The media and the public have been following the case from the start. When it first became clear that the lorry-driver, Mr. Clarke, had suffered a black out and was not simply reckless, public opinion was firmly behind him. However, when the black-outs were publicly reported as being related to a previously known condition, the public and the press completely reversed. During the FIA, the the right not to incriminate yourself was deemed “170 insults to the dead” and it seemed the only way justice could be done was through prosecution.  The tone was that the Crown office had messed up in deciding not to prosecute and blocking off that possibility – hence the private prosecution.
So, to stand in the way of the Private Prosecution would to deny the families of the dead their day in court. That would not produce happy headlines for the Government only 2 months out from an election.

Matheson makes clear that he isn’t predetermining the case (that is the High Court’s) and that he isn’t seeking to overturn the Lord Advocate’s decision and question the Crown Office. The difficulty going forward, however, is the message this sends out. Given that the idea of private prosecutions is – let’s be honest – pretty new to the zeitgeist, the rules around them are not clear in the public s mind. But now, the government might fund them. Why not give it a go?

The Scottish Legal Aid budget, as I have stated before, is a subject of particular interest to me – as is access to justice more generally. But this year the Scottish Government cut Legal Aid Budget both in real terms and cash terms! Given the strain this will put the system under already, I am not convinced that it is a good use of these public funds to commit – with no clear legal basis for doing so – an undetermined amount of money on a challenge the nature of which is not yet clear, to a decision of the public Crown Office when nothing appears to have changed since that decision was taken.

Nothing, that is, except public opinion.

Re-Solving Legal Aid…

…or how I developed a new respect for the Law Society.


Last November the Law Society of Scotland (or ‘LSoS’) released it’s Discussion Paper on the Future of Legal Aid in Scotland, setting out what changes it felt could be made. At the time I, amongst others, came out pretty resolutely against many of the reforms they suggested, since I felt they would damage the ability for the most vulnerable in society to access the legal system. As it happened, I was told by a reliable source that the high heid yins in LSoS’s Legal Aid department actually saw the post and considered it in response to the discussion paper.
Last week (the day before the General Election nonetheless), LSoS released their Final Recommendations based on the responses (and blog posts) they received. I’ve read it and it was a really positive shift from 6 months ago.

Criminal-wise, LSoS propose a system of block fees, to take account of the fact that since Legal Aid was last reformed, we have entered the post-Cadder age, where lawyers available at all hours of the day. With ‘telephone advice’ becoming a separate block, this will help simplify the system. There would then be a clear compartmentalisation of each additional “kind” of work required as is needed. This system has the great advantage of all knowing both the Legal Aid Board and solicitors to know ahead of time, what they can expect, instead of having to get Legal Aid certificates renewed every time. This is very similar to the current system, but tightens it up around the edges and makes it even clearer what can be expected when. Good work all round.

But it’s the massive changes with regards to Civil Legal Aid which have got me excited. My biggest problem with the discussion paper was LSoS suggesting that certain areas of law should be taken out of the scope of Civil legal Aid entirely. Those areas (including breach of contract; debt; employment issues; and housing) were the ones that vulnerable and disadvantaged were most affected by, and so it would be those groups that would feel the brunt of the Legal Aid cuts most keenly. However, I was pleased to see that LSoS have dropped the awful proposals. This genuinely made me smile when I read it, because it means those most in need of access to the justice system can still get their foot in the door.
The idea of Legal Aid Loans  (which will be paid back over a certain length of time based on financial means) is still not sitting 100% with me, but restricting them to the richest qualifiers as a kind of ‘top-up’ should lessen the worst aspects of the system. As long as free support is there for those most in need of it, top-up style loans will have a place in the system going forward.
Finally, it’s great that there’s a commitment to work with the voluntary sector to see how the professional legal sector  can work alongside it. However, and I accept that this is perhaps slightly outwith LSoS’s remit, the funding issues faced by law centres and advice bureau mean that, unless they are explored and resolved in a serious way, no long-term answers will be found. One possible step may be linking law firms and 3rd sector organisations, but this could only really be made viable through alternative business structures, which aren’t coming into Scotland as quickly as was anticipated only a few years ago.

In short, the Final Report is a massive improvement on what LSoS originally put out for discussion, so the Society should be proud. It has really listened to the responses it received – and that gives me great comfort as I enter the profession. The real way to solve this problem, of course, is to increase funding to Legal Aid and treat it as the important issue it is. You can have all the rights in the world, but if you are unable to enforce them in court, they are worthless. The idea that the only people who benefit from Legal Aid are fat-cat lawyers is, unfortunately, still keenly in the zeitgeist, which is a challenge for the profession – but the challenge for everyone is to defend the right a defence.


Given the recent discussion around Human Rights and all that surrounds them, it’s also worth highlighting that the right to proper representation has been accepted as being part of Article 6. So far in that debate, both the Scottish Government  and the Scottish Parliament has stated it will be a fierce defender of Human Rights in Scotland. By ensuring Legal Aid is sustainable and accessible in the long-term (which includes ensuring it has proper funding), they would be able to show that they will be.