Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Tuesday Truth

The author of this week's Tuesday Truth wishes to remain annonymous

                                                Just another statistic

Today I went to Court. There is nothing unusual about that as I go pretty much every day. Today was a little bit different because I found myself fighting back tears when I took instructions from a client. That's right, a hardened criminal lawyer who has spent the last fifteen years representing "guilty" people almost cried when meeting a client for the first time.

I'll be honest. It hasn't been the best week for me. The night of the General Election and the days that followed proved to be more depressing than I could have ever imagined.  They were the days that we discovered that 37% of voters actually wanted the Conservatives in power.  I was depressed because I struggle to comprehend how people can be so naive. I accept that everyone has a choice but when the choice made is ill informed it just feels wrong. A good example of this is the woman with whom I got drawn into a political conversation on Twitter because she wants to "start taking satellite dishes out of labour supporters houses" and she would "like to buy more shoes and not fund people watching Jeremy Kyle and not working".   I tried to explain using the limited characters allowed that her perception was wrong and that there are genuinely vulnerable people out there needing help who benefit from our taxes. I didn't succeed. She scoffed at me and went on to discuss horse racing with another like-minded Tory.

As a criminal lawyer I have spent the last two years campaigning. It offends me when people say we only complain because we are fat cats who are worried about our money.  I can personally set that straight pretty easily. Last year I was offered a job in a commercial firm doing a different area of law.  The money in the long term would have been considerably more than I could ever earn doing criminal law.  I turned it down. I turned it down despite the miserable and bleak future in legal aid. I turned it down because my job isn't about money.  My job is something I do because I care. I care for the vulnerable people like the girl I met today. .

I'm going to call her Lucy , her real name was just as pretty and feminine.  I've never met Lucy before. A colleague asked me if I would represent her as we had received a call about her being in the Youth Court for breaching her Youth Rehabilitation Order.

I arrived at the Youth Court and spoke to the Youth Offending Officer. He gave me a couple of pages setting out the breaches but said little else other than they needed full pre-sentence reports.  I returned to the landing and called Lucy's name. Lucy was sitting with an older man. She stood up and I invited her into an interview room. She walked in painfully thin and pale.  She had crimped her hair and had clumsily applied make-up.  She sat down and it was clear that she was uncomfortable. She struggled to make eye contact.  Her jaw was moving frantically and she was clearly under the influence of drugs. 

The first thing Lucy asked me was whether she would be remanded into custody today.  I told her it was unlikely and she relaxed slightly. I introduced myself and explained that I would read through the statement from the Youth Offending Team with her.  It didn't make for good reading.  She had been sentenced for a nasty robbery, her co-accused an older man.  . She had a number of unpleasant previous convictions which I later discovered had all been committed with a variety of older male co-accused. Looking at the young and vulnerable girl before me I would struggle to imagine her ever being able to instigate anything alone. She was struggling to cope with a conversation never mind anything else.

The breach of this order had arisen because she simply didn't turn up for appointments. I asked her why and she told me it was because the appointments were given to her support workers who didn't give her enough notice.  Despite already knowing the answer I asked her whether she was working or in education, she wasn't.  Lucy explained that she spends a lot of time going to another area about an hour away which I know is renowned for drugs and other illicit behaviour.  I asked Lucy about her personal circumstances. She told me she was 17, then smiled and said she was going to turn 18 next week. I doubt she will have the 18th birthday celebrations that most are fortunate enough to enjoy.  The papers revealed that Lucy was subject to a s20 Children Act Order. This means that she is accommodated by the Local Authority.  Lucy went on to tell me that she actually lived with her boyfriend, the older man outside who at twenty years her senior has children older than Lucy.  She had relaxed a little now and I asked her whether she considered her relationship to be "healthy". She looked at the floor and told me that he had never hit her. I didn't believe her.  It angered me that a vulnerable 17 year old subject to a s20 order could be in this position.

I asked Lucy about her family and she told me.  Her mum was a heroin addict and had always been a heroin addict. She had not had a good upbringing. Her mum couldn't cope.  One of her brothers had died. She had left school at thirteen because people were "doing things" to her and she couldn't concentrate. She showed me her arms. They were cut to pieces. Deep scars in every direction. She looked completely lost. She told me that her youngest brother had been taken into care last October at the age of fourteen. Fourteen years too late. She had never been given that chance. She told me she couldn't get on with her mum because of what had happened to her growing up.  She tried to stay in contact with her brother. She told me she was struggling to cope. She was struggling to get through life. I honestly wanted to cry. I wanted to be able to do something. I asked her what she thought might help her. She told me she wanted to be "put into hospital". She said that things weren't right in her head and she thought she had mental health problems.  It was clear that Lucy wanted to be in hospital because it would be the only place that she would be safe. I asked her about drugs.  She told me she smoked cannabis. She omitted to mention the class A substance that she had clearly taken that morning. We chatted a little longer and I advised her about the procedure and that the case would be adjourned. I urged her to comply with the reports and to tell them everything she had told me.  I promised her that I would come back and deal with her sentence.

I went into court with a heavy heart.  I told one of the Youth Offending Team how Lucy had made me feel.  Her response,  "I know last year we had to apply to the Crown Court to try and keep a known sex offender away from her". I actually felt sick. The thought that a young girl aged 17 had already suffered years of abuse and was continuing to do so with little protection from anyone. Protection that is likely to vanish once she turns eighteen in just under a week.

The case was adjourned as predicted. I said goodbye to Lucy but spent the rest of my day thinking about her.  I am deeply saddened by the fact that she has been completely let down. She has been let down by her parents, social services, by her teachers, by the staff she will have seen at the hospital to fix the scars on her arms. In fact she has been let down by everyone who has ever come across her and turned a blind eye. I am worried for her. I am worried because she is eighteen next week which makes it less likely that she will get the help she needs.  I know that she will never break the cycle.  I know that she doesn't have the strength or the ability to remove herself from the toxic relationships that she has with older, criminally sophisticated and sometimes sexually motivated males.  I know that she is never likely to get a job.  I know that she is likely to have children and that history will repeat itself.  I know this because I have seen it all before many times.

What really upsets me about Lucy is the people who will label her as another benefit scrounger, another statistic not worthy of their hard earned taxes.  The people who begrudge the £55 a week that she gets on the basis that she should "get a job". If Lucy was in a position to "get a job" and live a normal life I'm pretty sure she would.  As it is life has never given Lucy the chance. It concerns me that in these times of austerity the governments plans to save money will disproportionately affect people like Lucy.  The reducing budgets of the NHS, the police, legal aid and the probation service will all hit people like Lucy hard and let's face it Lucy has already been hit hard enough. It would appear that we live in a society where people would rather be able to "buy more shoes" than help someone like Lucy, a society that I am not comfortable with and will do everything I can to try and change.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Tuesday Truth


Out of the frying pan into the fire?

Goodbye Mr Grayling. It can be sad when relationships end, lost opportunities, ongoing feelings, intense bitterness, well in your case its just intense bitterness.   It is difficult for me to find the appropriate words to sum up my feelings at your departure from the Ministry of Justice. But I will try!

“Go now go walk out the door

  Don’t turn around now

  Cause you’re  not welcome anymore

  Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt us with your lie?  (or being charitable genuine mistakes)

  Did you think we’d crumble?

  Did you think we’d lay down and die?

  Oh no, not us

  We will survive

I know you wanted to give it another go. Upon your successful re-election as a Member of Parliament you indicated your desire to be returned to the Ministry of Justice to continue your work/destruction within the criminal justice system.   Sadly, Mr Cameron your boss did not see things the same way.   Perhaps it was the £70,000 odd  in costs wasted on defending the judicial review of your ban on books, perhaps it was the various other litigation that you lost or injudicious comments, but in the end you have been replaced with Mr Gove.

As soon as news leaked of Mr Gove’s elevation lawyers up and down the country received messages via text and social media from teachers sending their condolences and other unprintable remarks.

Many years ago Mr Gove wrote an article in The Times where he stated that there would be far less risk of corruption to the criminal justice system if the death penalty was re-introduced.   Of course now any such re-introduction would have to be predicated on the basis that the defendant had discharged all of his or her financial obligations, including costs to the prosecution, victim surcharge, the new Court tax, and that might delay the administration of the death penalty. Serco and G4s will soon be putting in tenders for such executions. No need to worry about anything going wrong then!

We already know that Mr Gove is going to tear up the Human Rights Act, and consequently the fight for justice goes on. Of course, this time it is not a coalition government it is a Conservative government, and therefore we do not have the Liberal Democrats to hold the Conservatives to account in respect of access to justice, although that will probably make no difference whatsoever (farewell Simon Hughes, you sold your principles down the line and were sentenced to losing your seat; thoroughly deserved).

On many occasions the Tuesday Truth has made grand declarations of the need to stand together to fight for our beliefs, to stand with the other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, for what is right and proper. We now need to stand together with other professions; doctors and teachers, to demonstrate that health, education and access to justice are the central pillars of an effective, civilised democracy.  Each of the three sectors profoundly impacts the other and each needs the other to be properly functioning.   There is a real risk that in five years time each will have sustained irreversible damage. 

The job I do I love.  I love going to court, to police stations, preparing cases. I feel it has a value, a benefit, I feel I deliver value for money. I hope that Mr Gove will allow the people who work at the coalface greater influence, and put off reform and cuts for greater review, in the end I just want to be left alone to do my job……..

Finally I have a question, to which I hope someone might have an answer. Is there an end to austerity? The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman says that uniquely in the Western world the UK (and now we should limit that to England, Wales and Northern Ireland since Scotland has voted so decisively) suffers from an “austerity delusion” all other advanced economies having realised very quickly that austerity of the type we have endured here actually limits economic recovery quite apart from the very real harm it causes to vital parts of the public services. With regard to the justice system a number of us have pointed out that the MOJ’s objective to bring down expenditure to £1.5bn has been achieved three years earlier than projected. To paraphrase the hapless Liam Byrne MP there really is no more money left to cut.  Mr Gove is credited with a fine mind and I fervently hope that he realises that Two Tier is unworkable and will prove to be a political embarrassment on his watch and that further cuts are unsustainable and will push us justice survivors into another fight when we all want to just get on with the job we love.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Tuesday Truth

Vote for Justice
By Paul Harris

I telephoned the officer on a number of occasions in order to try and arrange for the return of my client’s property.

My client had left over 30 messages. Amongst the property outstanding was an IPad, IPhone and credit cards.

Having received no response I wrote to the officer stating that if the matter was not sorted by the end of the day I would make a complaint and also contact the judge dealing with the case.

Finally a terse and irritated officer called me. He said it was up to the officer in the case to decide what property could be returned and I should know that.

I said it was unacceptable that my client had left so many messages which had not been returned.

The officer remained unsympathetic. I reminded him in case it was not obvious that I acted for the victim in this matter who had been attacked near her home, left badly bruised and who had helped the police track the offenders and had not heard from them for a week about the return of property that she needed to live her life. The property was returned by the end of the day.

Should victims need solicitors to get their property back? Does this sit with the Ministry of Justice Victim’s Charter? Does anyone have access to justice these days?

Many will have read the coverage in the Guardian on access to justice and in particular the open letter signed by retired judges and many other experts.

Chris Grayling has left other government departments in disarray and now he will leave the Ministry of Justice in similar disarray. The only real investment he seems to have made is in the new reception area currently being built at MOJ Towers in Petty France. Most would  think the old one in the state of art building which has had many millions spent on it in the last 10 years was more than adequate.

This afternoon there is a goodbye to Grayling party at MOJ Petty France. It is at 5pm Please attend. He has been barely visible during the Conservative election campaign. Regardless of whether he is a qualified lawyer or not he has certainly not acted judiciously in his dealings with the courts or those that run it. Probation, prisons, judges, lawyers and most importantly the parties who are either being prosecuted or seeking relief are victims of his assault on an independent justice system.

In a week’s time we will have a new government, with either the Conservatives or Labour as the major party.

Successive governments have treated access to justice as a luxury item not an essential pillar of democracy.

This cannot continue under the next government. None of us involved in delivering justice deserve to be treated with such disrespect. All of the agencies must work together to make sure that we speak with one voice. We yearn for some stability and recognition for what we do.

At the Rally held on 23rd April the importance of these issues were recognised by retired Court of Appeal Judges Moses and Hooper.

It is not just the public and politicians who need to understand these issues, we need to send a clear message to the civil servants who pedal out these ill thought policies who are unaccountable hiding behind a ministerial shield.

Indeed if there are savings to be made it may not just be on unnecessary renovations of receptions at Petty France, it may be on overly complex and bureaucratic processes dreamt up by those who inhabit MOJ HQ to justify their existence, increasing the administrative burden on the procurement of legal aid at the expense of providing proper resources to those who deliver it.

Whoever you vote for the fight is not over, but the message we need to send is that we will not stop