This is a dimension to the cuts in Legal Aid that This Writer had not previously considered.
I had been so preoccupied with the detrimental effect on justice – of the parties in civil cases not having access to legal advice – that it simply did not occur to me to consider the position into which judges were being forced.
Now we can see that district judges, who do not have the protections afforded to those in higher courts, are being forced into impossible situations.
No civilised society would treat its judiciary in such a way and expect the quality of work not to suffer.
But then, the UK hasn’t been a civilised society for nearly 40 years.
A district judge who is suing the Ministry of Justice after whistleblowing her complaints about courtroom dangers – death threats, violent claimants and hostage-taking – has spoken out for the first time about her experience of an under-resourced justice system.
The challenge mounted by Claire Gilham, formerly deputy director of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, highlights the position of judges who – because they are deemed not to be workers – are exempt from certain employment protections.
Her case is now understood to be before the justice secretary, Michael Gove, and is being appealed to the upper employment tribunal. Her experience of the worst strains inside the family court system reflect wider concerns about the pressure imposed by an influx of unrepresented claimants.
Court closures and mergers coincided with cuts to legal aid. Fewer claimants in family cases were entitled to be represented by a solicitor. “[The cuts] fell disproportionately on areas of social stress,” Gilham said.
Gilham demanded to see evidence on renewal of interim care orders because she was aware of past mistakes. She insisted on seeing evidence. “There was a danger of miscarriages of justice. I was told I had no discretion but to accept an email. So I defied them.
“Care orders are not routine. Every time we had to renew a care order, we had to have a certificate that it had been agreed. I was being asked to renew orders where there had been no certificate and I wouldn’t. I was told I was unreasonable and difficult … but judicial independence was being undermined.”
Earlier this month the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in his annual report to Parliament pointed out that “there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed”.
Thomas, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, added that judges felt their burden of work had grown and “are having to handle an ever-increasing quantity of challenging and emotionally charged cases in family and crime.”
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