news comment: A bit of a cheek from the butchers
Liberal lefty former barrister Simon Hughes joining the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) feels rather like a vegetarian taking a job in a butcher’s shop: likely to leave the incumbent feeling uncomfortable with what he is handling day to day.
It seems Hughes, who is now minister for justice and civil liberties, has been especially uncomfortable with the emerging crisis in the civil courts. A number of senior judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Thomas, have spoken out about the pressures being caused by the increase in litigants in person (LiPs), especially in the family courts.
Perhaps to assuage his guilt at having to handle the policy meat of cuts to civil legal aid and the courts service, Hughes chose The Guardian for his announcement in October 2014 about the establishment of a ‘network of in-court advice centres’ to assist LiPs. While this initiative is welcome, its coverage will be limited, and it will have little impact on the unmet legal need that the cuts to civil legal aid have caused.
A total of £1.4m of new money was announced by Hughes, but only £275,000 of this will be going to enable the Personal Support Unit (PSU), the charity mentioned in the Guardian article, to expand its network. PSU currently has centres in nine areas across England and Wales. Its largest service is in London which has four branches. Judith March, the director of PSU, says that the number of family cases they deal with ‘has grown hugely due to the LASPO Act’. She hopes that the cash will enable the charity to ‘expand at a faster rate than the current number of two a year’, but warns it needs to raise an extra £500,000 in match funding to deliver on its expansion plans.
March is keen to stress that they ‘don’t replace lawyers and don’t seek to replace them’ in the civil courts system. The PSU role, she says, is to provide LiPs with emotional support, information on the courts system and sign-post them to legal help, if this is available. She believes that the work of the PSU volunteers ensures that unrepresented people are ‘calmer and less emotional,’ and this means that ‘the courts system is more likely to be able to work with them.’
LAG understands that much of the rest of the £1.4m announced will go to the solicitors pro-bono charity, LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau. Another grant will go to the legal education charity, Law for Life, to provide information for LiPs.
RCJ CAB: additional funding
Any cash to support advice charities in this time of austerity is welcome, but the distribution of this funding gives the impression that, while the government is forced to acknowledge problems in the civil courts, it wants lawyers and other unpaid volunteers to pick up the pieces. This is a bit of a cheek, given that it was government cuts which created the mess in the first place, and I wonder how comfortably this sits with the minister’s liberal conscience.