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Crown Courts to Pilot Presence of TV Cameras

TV CameraCrown courts in England and Wales are to run a pilot scheme which will allow television cameras to be present for the first time. Cameras have previously been allowed into Supreme Court and Court of Appeal hearings, but never before into the crown courts.

The pilot scheme, announced recently by Justice Minister Shailesh Vara, will allow cameras to enter crown courts and record senior judges comments on sentencing defendants, but will not allow any other individuals or events in the court to be recorded. The footage from the pilot scheme, which is planned to begin within the next few weeks, is not intended for broadcast. However, if the outcome of the scheme is judged positively, it could lead onto further and more extensive presence of cameras within crown courts. Potentially, it could ultimately lead to some cases receiving live broadcast coverage.

Removing the ban on TV cameras in the UK’s courtroom has previously been suggested as a way to increase transparency and accountability in the legal system. Crown courts are open to both the public and to the press, but no recording of proceedings is allowed to take place. The Criminal Justice Act 1925 prohibits this, as does the Contempt of Court Act. As such, only those members of the public who attend proceedings in person have direct access to the opportunity to observe what takes place during a trial, with other members of the public having to rely on second hand press accounts. Some have that allowing cases to be witnessed by the public on a wide scale through broadcast would be desirable as a way of providing a more open and accessible system.

These sentiments were echoed by the Justice Minister in announcing the new pilot. Vara said: “My hope is that this will lead to more openness and transparency as to what happens in our courts. Broadcasting sentencing remarks would allow the public to see and hear the judge’s decision in their own words.”

The pilot scheme will take place over the course of three months, and involve eight different courts from various locations across England and Wales. These include the Old Bailey and its fellow London courts in Southwark, along with locations in Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol.

According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, safeguards will be put in place throughout the pilot period to ensure that justice is not impeded and that the needs of victims are not compromised. Cameras will not be permitted to record anybody in the court – including victims, defendants witnesses, legal professionals, and court staff – except the judge.

Newcastle Cracking Down on Legal Highs

NewcastleThe city of Newcastle is taking new steps to tackle the problem of “legal highs.” The city’s police have set up a new task force dedicated to cracking down on this issue.

Legal highs are substances sold legally, but which can be ingested to produce effects similar to those of illegal drugs. Some of these substances produce effects similar to ecstasy or cocaine. Some are available for purposes other than narcotic use, while others are created with the specific intention of mimicking illegal drugs while being sufficiently different in chemical structure to escape the law. Even the latter group, however, are usually sold as non-narcotic substances such as plant feed. Selling these substances specifically for human consumption would still be illegal even though they are not among the substances specifically outlawed in the UK, but labelling them as other kinds of chemical product bypasses this law.

Police officers in Newcastle reportedly dealt with almost a hundred incidents involving legal highs in a two month period. Between 15th November and 16th January, the city’s police responded to 98 such incidents. Some of the individuals involved in these incidents were as young as 14. Legal highs can be dangerous, and in a number of the incidents to which Newcastle’s police individuals have been experiencing potentially life-threatening side-effects.

According to Northumbria Police, use of legal highs in Newcastle has risen dramatically over the past six months. The force said that there had been an “alarming” rate of increase in incidents involving these substances in recent months, particularly in the west of the city.

According to Supt Richard Jackson, “it’s almost every day now that officers are having to deal with the consequences of someone who has taken legal highs.”

He went on to say that “Residents, especially in the west end and the city centre are becoming extremely concerned about the impact legal highs are having on their communities and enough is enough.”

Newcastle is not the first city to take steps to crack down on the use of legal highs. In late 2014, Sheffield cracked down on the use of such substances after experiencing a similarly rapid rise in the number of incidents police were dealing with. Police forces in parts of Scotland and in Hertfordshire have also previously introduced dedicated task forces, similar to that which has now been set up in Newcastle.

The new task force will comprise roughly a dozen police officers. They will be supported by staff from a number of other organisations and agencies, including Newcastle City Council and local health services.

Prisons Opened Confidential Legal Letters in “Human Error”

A number of prisons have been opening private and confidential legal correspondence between prisoners and lawyers, and it has now been found that the primary cause of this was simply human error. 32 complaints have been received and investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman as a result of staff opening this kind of correspondence when they had no right to.

The incidents to which these complaints relate took place between April 2014 and June this year. Roughly half of these 32 complaints have been upheld by the Ombudsman. The findings of the Ombudsman’s investigation, along with relevant facts and figures, have been published through the release of a special bulletin.

Nigel Newcomen, Ombudsman, said that he is “in no way complacent” about the matter of private correspondence being opened by prison staff outside of their rights. However, he also said that “it is perhaps reassuring that, of the complaints I have upheld, most appear to be isolated incidents of human error.” He went on to say that he had “found little evidence of deliberate or sinister tampering or of repeated failures at a prison.”

Newcomen described the “detailed rules” that surround the way prisons deal with confidential postal correspondence between legal professionals and prisoners. These rules are, he said, “designed to ensure that prisoners are able to communicate with their legal advisers without fear of disclosure or interference, and that they are able confidentially to communicate with independent scrutiny bodies without fear of reprisals from staff.”

Under the Prison Rules, Rule 39 – which deals with the matter of prisoners’ private legal correspondence – names just a few, very specific circumstances in which prison staff are allowed to open post for prisoners from legal professionals or firms. Staff may intercept, open, or read such post only if they have reason to suspect that the post in question is not in fact from a legal professional or organisation. They can also open such post if they have reason to suspect it may contain illicit items, being smuggled into the prison under the pretence of being legal correspondence in order to evade examination from prison staff.

Over the course of the investigation, the Ombudsman looked for any evidence of deliberate wrongdoing or of a wider problem within the prison system. This evidence was not found. Regarding the incidents that did take place, the Ombudsman said that it was not easy to establish exactly who had opened a letter and when, but nonetheless the root cause seemed to be simple human error in the majority of cases.

However, it was also noted that “the seriousness of the breach should not be underestimated and leaves open the possibility of legal challenge.”

Knife Crime Up for First Time in Four Years

knife crimeFor the first time in four years, the amount of knife crime taking place in England and Wales has risen. According to recent official figures, 2014/2015 saw 26,370 offences involving a knife recorded by police compared to just 25,974 the previous year.

Previously, knife crime had been falling since 2010/2011 – a trend which the latest figures have broken. The increase is perhaps surprising, as overall crime has fallen by 7% according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which is separate from the figures used to identify the increase in knife crime. The Crime Survey operates by interviewing people about their experiences with crime, regardless of whether they have gone to the police, and so aims to generate a more accurate picture of crime taking place than could be gleaned from police figures. The 7% drop identified by the most recent survey brought crime in 2014/2015 to its lowest level since 1981, with 6.8 million individual incidents taking place.

Sometimes, an increase in the number of incidents recorded in a given crime category does not represent an actual increase in crime. Instead, factors like changes in the way crimes are recorded by police, a crackdown on a particular category of crime, or an increase in the number of victims coming forward can lead to a crimes being recorded in greater numbers without a real increase in the number of crimes actually taken place. However, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said that it believes this kind of factor is unlikely to account for the increase in knife crime. Rather, the ONS is of the opinion that it represents a “real” increase.

While the Crime Survey data suggests a decrease in overall crime, a different picture is painted by the data most recently released by the ONS, which is based on those crimes that are recorded and from which the data regarding the increase in knife crime was taken. It suggests that crime increased by 3% in the year leading up to March 2015. The ONS’ data has around 3.8 million offences recorded in this period. However, unlike the increase in knife crime specifically, the ONS believes that the increase in overall crime is down to changes in the way crimes are recorded by police rather than an actual rise in the number of people committing offences. In particular, the 3% increase was largely driven by an increase of 23% in violent crimes against the person, which the ONS holds to be a result of different recording practices.

Increase in Special Guardianship Orders Over Adoptions

AdoptionOver the past two years, the number of English babies made subject to special guardianship orders has increased threefold. The number of adoptions has been falling over the same period.

Special guardianship orders are often seen as an alternative to adoption and foster care. It is a measure which sees a child placed in the legal guardianship of extended family or even friends until the age of 18, rather than placed into foster care or being adopted. Such orders can also be used to expand the rights of a child’s existing foster parents and place the child in their guardianship on a more long-term basis. The measure is mostly used for children under the age of 4, and such orders are usually made by local authorities. Most often, they are used to provide a safer home for children in cases of abuse or neglect by their birth parents.

In 2012, 160 babies in England were made the subject of special guardianship orders. In 2014, the number increased to 520.

The Department of Education has recognised the increase in the usage of special guardianship orders in cases concerning child care arrangements, and says it is reviewing the situation. Responses to the increase in the use of these measures over adoption have been positive in some quarters and negative in others.

A number of family groups have praised the increase in the use of special guardianship orders by local authorities, as it means more children are being placed safely in the care of relatives and friends, instead of being taken away in cases where this might have been possible and then going through the more complex and costly adoption system. Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT, a fostering and adoption charity, described the placing of children with members of their extended family as “a good thing.”

However, Elvin also questioned whether the assessments made in some cases before issuing special guardianship orders were as detailed as they should be. He expressed concerns that some children may be placed with relatives who may not have been close to the child beforehand, and also pointed out that the child’s new guardians did not receive the same level of support after placement as adoptive parents would. Others have also expressed concerns about whether such orders are being issued in cases where adoption may provide a safer and more stable home for a child.

According to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, recent court rulings have indeed shown the need for local authorities needed to consider the full range of options before turning to adoption. This includes, they say, the possibility of placing a child with birth relatives.

Bar Standards Board Calls for QC Re-Accreditation

The Bar Standards Board (BSB), the regulating body for barristers, has called for a re-accreditation process for criminal silks to be developed. The regulator asked Queen’s Counsel Appointments (QCA), the body which is responsible for awarding QC status to barristers, to consider creating such as system.

BSB put this formal request to QCA, feeling that the development of such a process would be conducive to current and ongoing efforts of quality assurance. The BSB is currently tasked with finding new ways to ensure that advocacy in the British legal system maintains the highest possible standards, and re-accreditation of criminal barristers could, the BSB believes, form an important step in achieving this.

The BSB’s efforts aim to find an alternative to the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA). This was itself supposed to help attain and ensure high standards of advocacy, but has found significant opposition among practitioners. The QASA, which was first proposed in 2013, is currently on hold, awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court from those who are opposed to the implementation of the scheme.

Queen’s Counsel Appointments was first set up in 2004, and its aim was to introduce a clearer and more transparent process for appointing Queen’s Counsels. It is responsible for the assessment of QC applications, which is usually achieved through the convening of independent selection panels, but there is currently no re-accreditation system for QCs in place.

Oliver Hanmer, the BSB’s director of supervision, was quick to explain both the importance of re-accreditation and the reasons for the BSB’s backing of such a scheme for QCs as part of ongoing quality assurance processes. “As the barristers’ regulator,” Hanmer said, “it is our job to set up systems that safeguard clients from those advocates who are simply not as good as they should be, no matter their level of experience. We are resolutely committed to achieving this aim.”

Those who hold QC status, Hanmer continued, should not in the BSB’s opinion be subject to quality assurance processes that are any less rigorous than those undergone by other professionals. The QCA, he said, would be “better placed” than the BSB itself to operate such a scheme.

The QCA must now decide whether it accepts this request. Should it do so, it will be able to exercise its own discretion in developing the process. Once the scheme had been outlined in detail, the BSB would then assess the impact that this process would have on the QASA.

MPs to Vote on Cigarette Law Before General Election

Plain Cigarette PackagingMPs will be asked to vote on a potential law regarding cigarette sales before the arrival of the general election in May. This could see the law, requiring cigarettes sold in England to be contained in plain, standard packaging, introduced by 2016.

The vote follows a number of public consultations aimed at assessing the possibility of introducing plain packaging – a concept already used by some jurisdictions. For example, in Australia all words and images aside from health warnings have been banned from cigarette packages since 2012. Labour has previously promised that it will introduce a ban on cigarette packaging imagery should it win power, but this may have been superseded now that it has been announced MPs will vote on the possibility before the election arrives.

A number of doctors have supported the move, saying that thousands of lives could potentially be saved. Minister for public health, Jane Ellison, has also claimed that banning branded imagery on cigarette packets would have a positive effect on public health, particularly where children are concerned.

Ellison claims that the idea of this move impacting positively on public health is supported by all the available evidence, and said that “we cannot be complacent” in an age where everybody is aware of the health implications of smoking. She also said that the current government is “completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes.” She also warned, however, that the cigarette industry may launch a legal challenge in opposition of such a move.

In claiming that the idea was supported by evidence, Ellison may have been referring to a review carried out by Sir Cyril Chantler last year. Following his review, Sir Cyril concluded that if plain packaging for cigarettes were introduced, it was highly likely that the number of smokers and the rate at which people took up smoking would see a small but significant reduction.

The prospect was also welcomed by chief medical officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies, who said “We need to keep up our efforts on tobacco control and standardised packaging is an important part of that.”

The vote will take place before the dissolution of Parliament for the start of the general election campaign in April. It is expected that MPs will be given a free cote on the matter. The law, if passed, would only apply to England. Ellison has expressed hopes that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would then introduce similar measures. The Welsh government has previously voted in favour of accepting any decision from Westminster on this issue, making it likely that Wales would indeed follow suit.

One Fifth of Crimes Not Recorded by Police

ShredderAccording to a report by police watchdog HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, one in every five crimes reported to police are not recorded. This is the latest development in an ongoing and longstanding controversy surrounding police crime recording standards.

The report looked at over 8,000 reports made to police throughout England and Wales, and established that officers were failing to record around a fifth. Over the course of a year, this amounts to over 800,000 offences going unrecorded.

This report has drawn fresh criticism for police who were already under fire for practices such as “no criming” – writing off reports of crime – or downgrading offences into less serious categories when recording them. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary described the degree to which police are failing to record crimes as “indefensible” and the Home Secretary said that “it is never acceptable for police to mis-record crime.

Concerns about the way police deal with reports of crime have been going on for some time. Earlier this year, it was announced that police data on crime would no longer be classed as “official figures” until standards improved.

Violent crimes are the categories that most frequently go unrecorded. Around a third of violent crimes are not recorded as offences. The second highest rate of failure to record reported crimes belongs to the category of sexual offences. More than a quarter (26%) of sexual offence reports are not recorded as crimes by police.

According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there are a number of factors that contribute to police under-recording of crime.  These include poor supervision, pressures from heavy workloads, and a culture focussed on targets. When crimes are reported to police but not recorded as a crime, it is unlikely that an investigation into the report will take place.

Of those offences that were recorded, in 3,246 cases it was later decided that no crime had taken place. The report believes that in a fifth of cases, this decision was incorrect and a crime that had taken place was simply written off. Furthermore, over 800 victims were not informed of the police decision to write off their report as “no crime.”

Other concerns raised in the report include concerns about insufficient penalties. Inspectors believe that around 500 offenders in the sample who were issued with a penalty notice or caution should have been given heavier penalties or charged.

Police representatives insist that there have been improvements made since the study on which the report is based was carried out.

Probate Apprenticeships Approved by Government

gavelThe government has approved the introduction of apprenticeships in probate, following an application from a group of practices and experts specialising in this area. Members of this group include the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC), CLT International, DC Law and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP).

CLC chief executive Sheila Kumar expressed her delight at the decision, saying: “The CLC is delighted to be supporting another apprenticeship trailblazer. It is an important part of our commitment to widening access to the legal profession and ensuring there is a good supply of well qualified individuals to meet client demand.”

The approval of the new apprenticeships in probate came as part of the government’s successful Trailblazer 3 scheme. The Trailblazer initiative, which now involved more than 1,000 employers across the UK, is a programme aimed at designing and improving apprenticeships as well as creating new opportunities for young people to build careers through an apprenticeship scheme. The initiative was first launched a year ago, in October 2013 to encourage employers in a range of industries to develop new apprenticeship schemes, and now encompasses new apprenticeships across 37 sectors.

Usually, those who have their applications approved under the scheme are groups made up of leading employers and organisations within a particular sector. They work together to develop new programmes and standards for apprenticeships in their industry, in order to not only create more opportunities for young people to get into their sector but also ensure high standards. The ultimate aim of the scheme is to ensure that new apprentices benefit from a scheme that has been designed by employers, and meets the standards that employers and experts in the sector have approved.

Business, innovation and skills minister Nick Boles raised his voice to “congratulate the probate practitioner’s trailblazer for the key role it is playing in developing new top-quality apprenticeships.”

“Through the trailblazers,” Boles continued, “initiative organisations like the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, in collaboration with their industry partners, will give people the skills they need to thrive and our businesses need to compete.”

Boles concluded by urging young people to consider apprenticeships as a career path, saying “There has never been a better time to do an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships give you the experience and top-quality training you need to get the career you want.”

Similar sentiments about the value of apprenticeships for both employers and young people were expressed by Vince Cable. The business secretary described apprenticeships as “a driving force behind getting young people the skills that employers want and the economy needs.”

Cable went on to say: “Our reforms have empowered businesses large and small to design and deliver world-beating apprenticeships that offer a real route to a successful career.

Supreme Court President Gives “Open Justice” Speech

Lord NeubergerLord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, explored a number of issues facing the current UK legal system in a speech to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club yesterday. The speech was entitled “The Third and Fourth Estates: Judges, Journalists and Open Justice.”

Among the issues explored by Neuberger in his speech is the way that legal news is reported in the media, and the role the media plays in UK justice. On this subject, Neuberger said: “The media, and perhaps particularly the written media, have a very important function in relation to the judiciary and therefore to the rule of law.”

Specifically, he highlighted the way it is only through the media that the public can hear impartial reports on what happens in the courtroom and on the decisions reached by judges and juries. This, Neuberger said, leads the media to “play an essential part in ensuring open justice.” He also described the media as “a vital forum” through which the public have the opportunity to discuss and comment on legal matters.

For this reason, Neuberger contends that “The media… have the right to report fearlessly on what the courts are doing and deciding, uncomfortable though that may be for us judges from time to time.”

In his exploration of the topic of open justice, Neuberger also talked about the accessibility of judicial decisions. Even for experienced legal professionals, he said, it can be difficult to both read and properly comprehend the content of these decisions.

“When reading some previous judgments,” Neuberger observed, “I find myself rather losing the will to live.” Neuberger then went on to say that “it is particularly disturbing when I realise that it’s a judgment of mine that I’m reading.”

Lord Neuberger then called for a climate in which the public can better understand the legal process and the decisions made in courts. Though earlier recognising that the media provides the forum through which the public can discuss activity in the legal system, he emphasised the importance of giving them the opportunity to do so in an informed way.

“Judicial decisions,” he said, are not simply there to be handed down to an admiring and meekly receptive public, who do not answer back.” Rather, the public should be capable of both forming and expressing their own views on those decisions.

Summing up this matter, Neuberger said that if the journalists were unable to report on the activity of the justice system, and if journalists and members of the public were unable to express their views, it “would undermine freedom of expression, another vital ingredient of a modern democratic society.”