Concerns over the closure of magistrates courts (19/02/2019)
Since 2010, over half of all magistrates courts have closed.
Figures published by the House of Commons library show that of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales, 162 - 50.2% of the estate - have shut and most have been sold.
The closures are part of a controversial Ministry of Justice (MOJ) efficiency exercise to meet the £1.2 billion cost of implementing a digital modernisation programme. Authorities are trying to roll out virtual hearings in criminal cases and encourage more people to lodge divorces and other claims online.
Treasury funding for the courts digital programme stipulates that a third of the cost must be met by selling courthouses. So far, the sale of court buildings has raised around £223 million.
All criminal cases are heard in magistrates’ courts where they’re dealt with by a judge or transferred to crown courts. In some cases, the closures have left defendants, witnesses, judges, police and solicitors having to travel more than 50 miles to access local justice.
Although the MoJ claims it’s reinvesting the money raised from selling court buildings into modernising the justice system, many are at odds with the move, claiming that there’s a mounting justice crisis.
Critics have suggested that long travel times are encouraging defendants and witnesses not to attend court. Although it concedes figures rose last year, the MoJ disputes this, stating the rate of defendant non-appearances didn’t change at the time most closures were enforced.
The justice select committee has launched an inquiry into the impact of the closures and access to justice and how far online systems and video hearings can be “a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.
HM Courts and Tribunals and the MoJ are defending the closure programme on the grounds that crime rates have fallen and large numbers of courthouses are operating at less than 40% capacity. It believes making greater use of technology will mean less people will have to travel to court.
Andy Costello, a partner in Russell & Russell’s crime department, said: “While everyone is all for modernising the system, access to justice is a fundamental principle of the British legal system. Closing court houses and making people travel miles and miles is hampering the judicial process. It’s particularly frustrating when cases that can be heard in local courts, which are still operational, are moved to courts a considerable distance away.”
Drug-driving bans overturned in wake of testing scandal (20/12/2018)
At least 40 motorists convicted of drug-driving offences have had their convictions overturned after evidence was found that a forensic testing laboratory tampered with the samples.
An investigation has been launched and a further 50 drug-driving cases have been dropped.
Around 10,500 samples from convicted motorists are being re-tested after allegations that Randox Testing Services’ Manchester laboratory had manipulated the results.
So far, as many as 2,700 cases have been re-assessed and two cases that involved road deaths have been referred to the Court of Appeal. Although the convictions were upheld, one of the drivers had their sentenced reduced.
Two other cases, which were not fatal, were also referred to the Court of Appeal, resulting in one of the convictions being quashed, while a decision is still being awaited on the other.
“This is a real blow to the credibility of the criminal justice system”, said Andrew Costello, a partner in Russell & Russell’s criminal defence department who specialises in representing clients facing motoring convictions. “Any ruling to fine, ban or jail someone is based on solid, undisputed evidence, so there cannot be any doubt about the culpability of drug-drivers.
“A false or questionable prosecution process has all sorts of implications, not just for those accused, but the victims as well. People who face losing their licence may lose their livelihoods and those who have been injured, or have had loved ones injured or even killed, as a result of people driving under the influence of drugs should not be put through the agony of convictions potentially being overturned due to failures in the reliability of the testing process.”
Manchester is the UK’s second speeding hotspot (08/10/2018)
Figures compiled by comparison website GoCompare have revealed that Manchester holds the number two spot for speeding in the UK.
Of the 10 worst areas across the city, Manchester’s most law-breaking road is the A580 East Lancashire Road with 12,614 speeding incidents between January and May this year.
Second is the A5103 Princess Road, with one stretch detecting more than 6,500 offences, while junction 25 on the M60 clockwise has racked up a whopping 16,768 offences since January 2016.
Overall, Manchester comes second only to Avon and Somerset, but it has held the runner up ‘accolade’ for the last three years. And, while 2017 saw a 16% decrease in the number of offences committed in comparison to 2016, with 50,000 cases reported by the end of May, this year’s figures are anticipated to rise again.
If speeding offences continue at their current rate, Greater Manchester Police is expected to rake in almost £3 million in fines this year, totaling just under £8 million over the last three years.
The report also revealed some shocking cases of law breaking. Last year, one driver in the city was recorded travelling at 121mph on the A6 Broad Street – more than twice the speed limit. An incident in Liverpool, however, trumped all to be crowned the worst speeding offence in the UK after a driver was clocked at an eye watering 148mph in a 50mph zone.
Bearing in mind that the figures come less than a year after the Manchester Evening News reported that less than a quarter of the area’s cameras are actually switched on, it demonstrates the scale of people flouting the law.
Defence lawyer, Nick Ross, a partner at Russell & Russell Solicitors, said: “We all know speeding is dangerous, but some of the examples highlighted in this report are ludicrous and should rightly be prosecuted. The roads are getting busier and busier and, love them or hate them, speed cameras are a mechanism to prevent accidents and are here to stay.
“If you’ve a clean licence and are caught driving at what is deemed a moderate speed, there’s a good chance you’ll be offered a speed awareness course. But, each motoring offence is judged on its individual circumstances and if you are prosecuted, you could find yourself with a fixed penalty and anything between three and six points.
“If you’ve already had points put on your licence in the last three years, then you’re at risk of ‘totting-up’ which means that 12 or more points will make you liable for a minimum six months disqualification. Of course, in some instances, we can argue exceptional hardship to avoid or reduce the ban, but the simple message here is if you don’t want to risk your licence, don’t speed.”
Criminal Defence Solicitor Joins Russell and Russell (01/05/2018)
Russell and Russell has made a key appointment to its criminal defence department in Chester.
Richard Thomas joins the firm from Walker Smith Way, part of the Slater Gordon network, to work alongside the existing defence team at our White Friars based practice.
Having graduated as a solicitor in 1999, Richard went on to ascertain his Higher Rights in 2009. This allows him to act for clients both as a solicitor and at advocacy level.
“Richard’s experience of criminal law is very impressive”, said Howard Jones, head of Russell and Russell’s crime department in Chester. “He has a successful track record at the Court of Appeal and Crown Court and brings with him a host of skills that will enhance the department and provide invaluable assistance to our clients.”
Concern as Criminal Defence Lawyers Face Extinction (25/04/2018)
The Law Society has issued a warning about the future of criminal defence law in England and Wales.
Government cuts and 20 years without increases in fees have led to a dearth of young lawyers taking up a career in criminal law. The combined effect has resulted in an increasingly ageing part of the profession as younger solicitors no longer see a viable career practising in this area of the law.
The concern has been echoed by defence solicitors who are uniting to highlight the damage lawyers believe the government is doing to the criminal justice system.
Although across the whole criminal defence profession only 27% of solicitors are over 50, data has revealed that in Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, West Wales and Mid Wales over 60% of criminal law solicitors on duty rotas are aged over 50.
Worryingly, there are no crime solicitors under the age of 35 in in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire and only one each in West Wales and Mid Wales. With just two, the situation in Devon is not much better. Leicester is the only county where the age of criminal defence lawyers is roughly in proportion with 30% over the age of 50, followed by Buckinghamshire which has 34%. In and around London, the figure is approximately 40%.
The view from the Law Society is that, if the trend continues, in five to 10 years people won’t be able to access their rights in many regions and if the situation continues criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct.
The Law Society has developed a ‘heat map’ of the demographics by county, which can be found here.
BBC Justice Survey Reveals Critical Failures in Evidence Disclosure (28/02/2018)
Damning results of a survey highlighting failures in disclosing evidence at criminal trials have been published by the BBC.
The report, which was commissioned by the BBC in conjunction with the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the Criminal Bar Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, follows the collapse of a number of rape trials after it emerged that evidence hadn’t been shared with defence lawyers.
Over 1,200 responses were received from criminal solicitors and barristers who raised a barrage of concerns that evidence was being withheld, leading to miscarriages of justice.
The key findings of the report revealed that failures to disclose information were evenly split between the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police. 97% of those surveyed said they had encountered disclosure of evidence failings during the last 12 months, with 55% saying the problems were a daily or weekly occurrence.
85% said the failures had placed the defence under unreasonable logistical or time pressure, while 78% said the failures had resulted in a delayed trial. Worryingly, 56% said failures had caused a case to collapse and 44% said the failures had resulted in a denial of justice.
Perhaps most concerning of all, however, was the statistic that 33% of those who responded to the survey claimed that failures to disclose had resulted in possible wrongful conviction or miscarriage of justice.
So far, most of the publicity surrounding the issue has concerned Crown Court, but half of those surveyed claimed failings were also being committed at Magistrates' Courts, where the majority of crimes are dealt with.
Speaking of the findings, Nick Ross, a partner in Russell and Russell’s criminal law department, said: “Clearly, it’s understandable why there’s an enormous concern here. Access to a fair trial is at the very core of the criminal justice system and if people are going to prison because evidence is being withheld, it needs to be addressed urgently. The public has a right to have confidence in the system and there is no place for miscarriages of justice in a modern, progressive society.”
Law Society to launch legal challenge over cuts to criminal defence fees (12/12/2017)
The move follows repeated concerns about the state of the legal aid market and its ability to withstand further reductions.
The decision to take its case to the High Court was made after the Law Society voiced its fears that access to justice was under even greater threat from Ministry of Justice (MoJ) plans to reduce payments for crown court cases.
The MoJ proposal intends to slash fees for paper heavy crown court cases, which it claims lead to an increase in the average cost per case. The counter argument, however, is that fees for less complex crown court cases are so low that legal firms are working at a loss and that lawyers are often subsidising such cases from the proceeds of larger cases in order to represent vulnerable people.
Criminal defence fees were reduced by 8.5% in March 2014 and the Law Society believes that the impact of this has not yet been determined. Further savings are also set to be made from the courts and tribunals reform programme alongside other initiatives, which the Law Society also believes should be taken into account before a decision is made with regard to reducing fees further.
All May not be Gloomy in Crime (15/03/2016)
Nick Ross, criminal practitioner and SAHCA committee member, writes:
The announcement in late January of the reversal of the proposed two-tier Duty Solicitor contracting process combined with the suspension of the further cut to criminal legal aid fees of 8.75% is clearly of great importance to lawyers specialising in criminal law. In February the MOJ announced that one fifth of the courts and tribunals in England and Wales are to close.
Many firms have been despondent in the light of decreasing workloads, increasing challenges and constant battles with our paymasters, The Legal Aid Agency. However, some are of the opinion that the recent significant developments might just represent the turning-point so many firms have been waiting for.
Firstly, the MOJ conceded their much maligned two tier duty solicitor contract tender, which in the simplest of terms means that the proposed reduction from around 1500 firms to 500 or so will not now squeeze the profession and reduce access to justice and access to criminal work for so many practices and their clients. The Justice Secretary The Right Hon. Michael Gove recognized in the climb-down that the MOJ had identified other ways of achieving economies and also that they faced real problems in defending the litigation instigated by around 100 disappointed applicant firms. So many firms were granted a reprieve, at least for 12 months whilst a review is undertaken. But, not only was there that welcome news for so many firms, also the MOJ agreed to suspend the previously introduced 8.75% cut in Criminal Legal Aid fees as from 1st April, which in effect gives a rise after the cut was implemented more than six months ago. This was the second such cut in 12 months, on the back of around 20 years of absolutely no rises………unbelievably, literally none. Strictly this suspension of the cut reverts to the status quo pre- July 2015, but it seems most criminal solicitors were not expecting this piece of good news.
Secondly, the Court closure consultation announcement by the MOJ involves the closure of 86 courts nationally, the equivalent of 1/5 of the court estate, and the majority of these relating to the criminal jurisdiction – in fact around 60 Magistrates’ Court venues. The Law Society and other organisations have expressed concern, largely appertaining to reduced access to justice for court users and increased travel, for many to court centres much further than has hitherto been the case. Centralisation seems to be the way forward for the MOJ, with huge savings being achieved by the closure of court-houses. However, it may be that for solicitors, especially as advocates practising in the surviving and potentially busier courts, there may be a paradoxical advantage. In many respects less courts means less venues to cover and less advocates needed to be deployed. Take Greater Manchester as an example, currently there are 8 Magistrates’ Courts although only 1 sitting on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. The plan is for the closure of 3, leaving 5 in a metropolitan area, with high volume and a high crime rate. Often firms are spread thinly across multiple court centres and extra cover is needed, for example by counsel. With less court venues to attend, despite the travel challenges, it may just be that solicitor advocates will have an improved chance of providing the advocacy cover in-house – less venues, not so thinly spread, less external advocates required, and therefore familiar competent advocates representing clients who know their “brief”.
Listing in combined and centralised courts may well throw up greater challenges as these busier courts and their lists often result in greater delays. Listing varies court to court but some practitioners may well engage with court user groups in an attempt to secure timed listing of cases e.g. Pre-sentence reports cases in an afternoon. Indeed, the availability of the advocate should be an important consideration which the new “Better Case Management” initiative in the Crown Court is supposed to recognize.
So these dramatic developments may well give the solicitors’ profession a fairer chance of providing a fairer and more consistent service, with clients hopefully achieving some benefits despite the closure of courts.
New Crime Solicitors for Russell and Russell (14/01/2015)
Russell and Russell Solicitors have taken on two solicitors to deal with its growing demand for legal defence services.
Leanne Hurst joins the practice from Forbes Solicitors in which she completed two years of legal training after graduating from the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Law in Manchester and Chester. She joins the criminal law department at a time when the firm has moved to new offices on Mawdsley Street to house its growing team.
Kevin Liston has joined from Stock Moran Swalwell in Wigan. Dealing with all aspects of criminal law, he will be an integral member of the Russell & Russell team, representing clients at police stations, magistrates courts and crown court.
Speaking of his new role, Kevin said: “Russell & Russell’s reputation extends far beyond the Bolton area and I’m delighted to be working at such a highly regarded firm. Everyone has been extremely welcoming and I’m looking forward to working with the team and representing clients across the region.”
Nick Ross, crime partner at Russell and Russell, added: “It was clear from the outset that Kevin’s experience would complement our existing service offer. He has an excellent track record in defending both legally aided and private paying clients and has been a Higher Court Advocate since October 2010. I’ve no doubt he will make a significant contribution to the on-going success of Russell & Russell.”
Established in 1887, Russell and Russell Solicitors have been providing legal services for over 120 years. The practice has grown organically to incorporate eight offices across the North West and in addition to its criminal defence service, the firm also provides legal advice on property, wills and probate, family matters and personal injury.