Stringent protections are paramount when justice is delivered through technology, cautions Law Society

Legislation intended to pave the way for online justice – including in criminal trials – will be carefully scrutinised by the Law Society of England and Wales to ensure the most stringent protections are put in place.
Responding to the publication of the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, Law Society president Joe Egan said: “Putting technology to work to help deliver justice is reasonable so long as there are appropriate safeguards.
“We are likely to press for safety measures to be included within some areas of the legislation.
“In particular, we believe online indications of a plea in criminal cases should only be permissible where the defendant is represented.
“It’s one thing to be able to enter a plea and be convicted online in very minor cases, as you currently can by post. But we will want to see the most stringent protections against ‘mission creep’ so that online justice is not used for more serious criminal offences.
“This bill includes a number of measures which will be significant in advancing Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) reform programme, and will give Parliament its first opportunity to engage in detail with the programme.
“A modernised court service and efficient use of technology could benefit all court users, and will hopefully allow for court staff to deal with ‘routine matters’ and free up judges’ time to concentrate on other matters.
“Technology has an important role to play, but it is not the silver bullet. A recent National Audit Office report has highlighted that this programme has significant funding gaps. We are aware that facilities are not yet in place across all courts.
“We hope that, with this bill, more funding can be injected into the court modernisation programme to ensure it is sustainable.”

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Let’s not waiver goodbye to consumer protection

News a key legal regulator has given the go-ahead for an unregulated business to start employing solicitors to advise its clients was met with alarm by the Law Society of England and Wales which said rules were being relaxed without proper scrutiny.

Law Society vice president Christina Blacklaws said: “Ad hoc regulation is no regulation at all.

“This waiver of the usual rules for one particular company allows a fundamental change to the regulatory framework by the back door. This is a change which has been widely opposed by both the profession and consumers.

“A rule change with such far-reaching consequences for client protection should be reviewed by the Legal Services Board to ensure it doesn’t harm the public interest before being introduced.

“If a solicitor works in an unregulated, profit-making entity their clients cannot rely on a regulated guarantee of robust professional indemnity insurance, access to the solicitors’ compensation fund, or legal professional privilege.

“It benefits nobody if regulatory change is introduced piecemeal and without proper scrutiny. Regulation exists to protect consumers, providing consistency and certainty. It preserves the strong global reputation of our legal system.

“If the protection afforded by a solicitor is no longer certain, trust in the profession may be eroded and in future fewer people may seek legal advice at crucial points in their life.

“The SRA must stop eroding client protections.”
8 May 2018

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Windrush crisis underscores need for immigration legal aid

Cuts to legal aid for immigration issues mean members of the Windrush generation may be denied justice as they try to settle their status and rebuild their lives, the Law Society of England and Wales warned today.
Law Society president Joe Egan said: “As far too many people who came to the UK as children now know, an immigration issue can quickly spiral out of control with disastrous consequences – jobs are lost, health and social services denied, in the worst cases people are detained and face deportation, despite having every right to call this country their home.
“When the fallout can be so catastrophic, we believe that legal aid is essential so anybody facing such an unjust scenario can get legal advice right at the outset, whatever their circumstances.
“The results of the government’s long-awaited review of the impact of cuts to legal aid are urgently needed. Thousands of people who were eligible for legal aid on one day (31 March 2013) became ineligible the very next day. When people cannot access advice or protect their rights, effectively those rights do not exist.
“The experiences of the Windrush generation illustrate how easily people can fall foul of complex immigration rules and an administration that routinely makes incorrect decisions. It is only just that everyone should have access to legal advice to navigate this labyrinthine system.”
More than 22,000 people with immigration problems received legal advice through legal aid in the year before the cuts. By 2016 just three people were able to get this vital support.
Joe Egan added: “We know 50% of Home Office immigration decisions are overturned when reviewed by a judge – this is clear evidence the system is broken.
“Legal aid is a lifeline for the vulnerable. Early legal advice can help people resolve problems quickly and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to the individual and saves taxpayers money.”
Of the Home Office helpline set up for the Windrush generation, Joe Egan said: “It is vital that anyone affected gets independent legal advice so they know their rights and understand clearly what they need to do to settle their status and claim compensation if they have suffered as a result of Home Office errors.
“The government should make sure that anyone who cannot afford to get independent legal advice is supported to do so.
“Removing lawyers from the process is a false economy and may prove damaging for people who rely on the Windrush helpline.
“A properly funded legal aid system is an essential public service that ensures equal access to justice for all.
“We urge the government to restore and protect access to justice for everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances.”

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Lords’ collision with new whiplash Bill shows legislation has a long way to go

An overhaul of rules for personal injury claims will create the paradox that someone hurt in a road traffic accident will be entitled to less compensation than if they had sustained the injury another way, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

New legislation being pushed through Parliament – the Civil Liability Bill – will mean road users injured through no fault of their own will struggle to get justice. The Bill faced criticism during a four-hour Lords debate for failing to define a whiplash injury properly.

Law Society president Joe Egan said: “We are concerned about the lack of clarity because fixed levels of compensation are set to be imposed for whiplash injuries. The Law Society is therefore calling for the definition of whiplash to be set by medical experts.”

During the debate peers also highlighted the need to exclude vulnerable road users, such as cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders from the measures in the bill. Concerns that savings for insurers would not be passed on to consumers were also raised.

Law Society president Joe Egan said: “It is clear peers recognise that these new proposals will mean victims will receive far less than under current levels of compensation. Ministers need to address these concerns.

“When combined with Ministry of Justice (MoJ) plans to increase the small claims limit, the amount of legal advice and guidance that can be obtained from a solicitor in these cases will be severely restricted.

“Our concerns about the legislation were echoed by Lord Marks, who stated that the increase in the small claims limit will “deny very large numbers of genuine claimants legal advice and representation.”

Joe Egan added: “Without representation claimants will end up either not bringing claims or have no choice but to go it alone.

“Going it alone with a road traffic accident claim up to the value £5,000 is wholly unrealistic and will prejudice thousands of people who have suffered injury through no fault of their own.

“This legislation has a long way to go and we will continue to oppose these reforms.”
27 April 2018

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Criminal defence lawyers face extinction amid justice crisis

Criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct, the Law Society of England and Wales warned today as it unveiled new data showing a looming crisis in the number of defence solicitors.
“The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario; criminal duty solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession, and government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering the field of criminal defence work,” said Law Society president Joe Egan.
“If this trend continues, in five to ten years’ time there could be insufficient criminal defence solicitors in many regions, leaving people in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.”
A Law Society heatmap shows that across Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, West Wales and Mid Wales, over sixty per cent of criminal law solicitors are aged over fifty years old*.
Meanwhile, in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under thirty five, with only one each in West Wales and Mid Wales, and only two in Devon.
A person who is arrested on suspicion of wrongdoing has the right to ask for the local ‘duty solicitor’, who can provide legal advice free of charge. Duty solicitors are available twenty four hours a day and are independent of the police.
The police station advice scheme was set up in the wake of a series of scandals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a significant number of convictions were overturned due to police misconduct against suspects. These solicitors protect suspects against inappropriate treatment, but also the police from false allegations of mistreatment.
“Criminal justice is at the heart of a democratic society and duty solicitors ensure a fundamental part of the justice system is upheld,” Joe Egan said.
“Twenty years without any increases in fees, and a series of drastic cuts have pushed the criminal justice system to the point where lawyers can no longer see a viable career doing this work.
“Access to independent, expert legal advice is an important right which ensures fair access to justice. If a suspect cannot access free advice and representation, a fair trial would be jeopardised, and cases would collapse.
“The Law Society is calling on the government to take action and conduct an economic review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system and to guarantee that criminal legal aid fees will rise with inflation.”
The map is available here: HEATMAP

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Court gridlock warning as government ponders ‘no deal’

Confusion over legal rights in the wake of a ‘no deal’ Brexit could create a wave of litigation causing gridlock in UK courts, the Law Society of England and Wales warned today.

As the House of Lords EU Select Committee considers the impact of ‘no deal’, the Law Society cautioned a ‘no deal’ scenario could tarnish the reputation of England and Wales as the jurisdiction of choice for dispute resolution and scupper the ability of businesses to operate effectively.

Law Society vice president Christina Blacklaws argued a ‘no deal’ scenario should be avoided at all costs.

“The confusion caused by severing all ties with the European Union will have a significant impact on our legal system,” she said.

“We can expect a tremendous volume of litigation as companies challenge government and other agencies in the courts to obtain clarity on their legal rights.

“Companies operating in the UK and EU will also face the challenge of dual regulation, a burden which will fall hardest on small and medium-sized businesses.

“Many companies will struggle to function when they are forced to wait months to understand their legal rights and obligations under a new framework.”

The legal services sector contributed £25.7 billion to the UK economy in 2015 making it the second largest in the world.

Christina Blacklaws added: “Any scenario which clogs our court system will lead to international corporations looking elsewhere to solve disputes.”

The Law Society also warned a ‘no deal’ scenario would bring an end to a whole raft of reciprocal arrangements in areas such as data protection and chemical regulation. Such a scenario would also threaten security and policing collaboration between the UK and the EU.
1 November 2017

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Solicitors uniquely placed to ensure defendants from minority ethnic backgrounds are treated fairly

Criminal defence solicitors are uniquely placed to ensure defendants from minority ethnic backgrounds are treated fairly, the Law Society of England and Wales said today.

“The Law Society is committed, as are the dedicated practitioners who work in criminal justice, to improving the system in the public interest and ensuring that all are equal in the eyes of the law,” said president of the Law Society Joe Egan, responding to David Lammy’s review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the Criminal Justice System (CJS).

He added: “Criminal defence solicitors have a duty always to act in their client’s best interests. We will look at what more we can do to ensure all defendants are aware that their solicitor is completely independent of the police or other criminal justice agencies, and that their efforts are entirely directed to achieving the best possible result for their client within the law and in the circumstances of the case.

“We recognise the importance of a legal profession that reflects the population it serves. The Law Society has made great strides in increasing diversity so that today the proportion of solicitors from BAME backgrounds, at 14.1 per cent, closely mirrors that of the general population.

“However, at more senior levels we have a lot of work to do before we can say with any confidence that we demonstrate diversity. We are helping firms to adopt fair recruitment and development procedures, as well as supporting them to recognise unconscious bias.”

Criminal legal aid solicitors are critical for ensuring that anyone accused of wrongdoing has a fair trial. But the viability of firms doing criminal defence work is under threat as remuneration rates for criminal legal aid work have not been increased since 1998.

Joe Egan concluded: “Criminal justice is at the heart of a democratic society and underpins the rule of law. ”

8 September 2017

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Independence of the legal profession underpins rule of law

The rule of law and the UK’s reputation for justice and fair play are underpinned by an independent legal profession, the Law Society of England and Wales said amid concerns about the relationship between the solicitors’ regulator and the Ministry of Defence published in the Observer today.

Law Society president Joe Egan said: “Britain’s standing internationally and as a jurisdiction of choice is underpinned by the independence of the legal profession and its regulators from government.

“This separation of powers ensures that the law can hold every one of us accountable, from the most vulnerable to the most powerful.

“The right to access to justice for all depends on lawyers being able to represent their clients’ cases within our framework of laws, no matter how the client or case may be perceived by the public, media or government.

“The merits of each case are decided by the relevant court, a function that is and must remain separate from government.

“Lawyers should not be hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties. Nor should they be identified with their clients or clients’ causes. This principle is set out in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.”

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Law Society hails first woman to preside over Supreme Court

Our judiciary should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the Law Society of England and Wales said today, celebrating the announcement of Lady Brenda Hale as the first woman to be appointed president of the Supreme Court.

Law Society president Joe Egan commented: “I am delighted to congratulate Lady Hale on her appointment as president of the Supreme Court. Not only does she have an outstanding legal mind, she has also campaigned for greater judicial diversity tirelessly and with good humour for many years.”

Joe Egan continued: “We need judges who have demonstrated legal excellence throughout their careers, just as we also – crucially – need judges from diverse backgrounds to oversee some of the most important and significant cases that shape our laws.

“There are still far fewer women than men in the judiciary, but – thanks in large part to role models like Lady Hale – the number is growing steadily.

“With Lady Hale as their inspiration, I hope more women – and others from diverse backgrounds – will feel that the legal profession is one in which they can realise their ambitions.”

The Law Society also issued congratulations to all the new Supreme and Appeal Court judges, in particular the second woman to be appointed to the court, the Rt Hon Lady Justice Black DBE, and Mr Justice Singh – who will become the only serving Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic judge at the Court of Appeal.

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Brexit bill: People’s rights must be placed centre stage

Today the UK government fired the starting gun on the biggest change to our legal system for more than 40 years – the unravelling of our relationship with the European Union. The Law Society of England and Wales and solicitor profession will work tirelessly with all parties to ensure people’s rights are put centre stage.

“Transposing vast swathes of legislation accumulated across four decades is an eye-watering undertaking and we must make sure that in the process hard won rights are not lost,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Joe Egan.

“The publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill throws up opportunities – but it also throws up risks. Risks to the stability of the economy, the level of scrutiny we expect from our parliament, to the many opportunities and rights our EU membership has guaranteed.

“So in this context we are offering to convene the considerable expertise available in the legal profession to help politicians of all parties as they commence this vast task.”

The Law Society has several key calls:

· Guarantee fundamental rights
· Ensure access to justice through continued co-operation with the EU
· Maintain legal certainty during this period of upheaval
· Protect the strength of legal services which underpins the UK economy

“The challenge ahead is immense but solicitors stand ready to work with all sides to ensure that Britain’s future is bright,” said Joe Egan.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is intended to ensure the same rules apply on the day after Brexit – while giving the UK parliaments the power to change them.

“We are glad that David Davis has said he will ‘work with anyone’ to make this a success and we are ready to play our part,” added Joe Egan.

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