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Sir James Munby pulls no punches

Sir James Munby (credit: PSU)

Errors by courts and judges that left a couple’s final divorce decree potentially void was exposed in a judgment from the former head of the family division, who slammed the state for “washing its hands” of the problem it created by not granting legal aid to the parties to resolve their case.

A “fundamental failure” of the court process meant that a couple, known only as M and P, were granted a “wholly defective” divorce, Sir James Munby, who until July 2018 was President of the Family Division, said in a ruling this week, after court staff and judges failed to spot an error on the divorce petition.

The parties married in London on 19 September 2011. In June 2013, the husband, M, acting in person without help from a lawyer, submitted a divorce petition dated 14 June 2013 to the Willesden County Court.

M had ticked the box on the application stating that he was seeking a divorce on the grounds that the parties had “lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition and the respondent consents to a decree/order being granted”.

The petition was returned to M on three occasions before the court was prepared to accept it due to errors in the application, and the petition was issued on 26 July 2013. No one had noticed that, at the time that the petition was issued, the couple had only been married for 22 months, and the statutory two-year period had not elapsed.

The error was not picked up by the two judges who subsequently granted the decree nisi and the decree absolute — deputy district judge Quin, and district judge Steel.

The husband M remarried a Brazilian citizen in 2015. In 2016 a member of HMCTS staff discovered the error with the divorce.

In a bid to put things right, district judge Middleton-Roy amended the divorce decree stating that is had been granted on a different basis, and said that the divorce decree remained valid.

The Queen’s Proctor, a solicitor representing the crown in the courts of probate and divorce, said that the district judge had no power to retrospectively amend the divorce and that the divorce decree was void.

In his judgment published this week, Sir James ruled that the initial error made the divorce decree “voidable, not void”. He said that decree remained valid and that district judge Middleton-Roy had been right to seek to amend the divorce decree in the way he had. The case also exposed similar failures in several other divorce cases.

Giving judgment, Sir Munby slammed the system for failing M and P, who he said are “the innocent victims of failure by the court system” and mistakes made by court staff and judges. He said:

“The focus of the hearing was, inevitably, on the difficult questions of law … But it must never be forgotten that, at the end of the day, this application affects four human beings — P, M and their new spouses — in a matter which is of transcendental importance to all of them.”

Sir James also criticised the state for washing its hands of the problem its errors had created by refusing to grant legal aid to M or P, and leaving them to rely on the good will of the solicitors and barristers who represented them without charge.

He said: “The ultimate safeguard for someone faced with the might of the state remains today, as traditionally, the fearless advocate bringing to bear in the sole interests of the lay client all the advocate’s skill, experience, expertise, dedication, tenacity and commitment. So the role of specialist family counsel, and of the specialist family solicitors who instruct them, is vital in ensuring that justice is done and that so far as possible miscarriages of justice are prevented.”

Munby continued: “May there never be wanting an adequate supply of skilled and determined lawyers, barristers and solicitors, willing and able to undertake this vitally important work. There can be no higher call on the honour of the bar than when one of its members is asked to act on behalf of a client facing the might of the state. The bar, I am sure, will never fail in its obligation to stand between crown and subject. And the same of course goes for the solicitors’ profession.”

But he said: “There is something profoundly distasteful when society, when government, relies upon this as an excuse for doing nothing, trusting to the professions to do the right thing which the state is so conspicuously unwilling to do or to provide for.”

He did criticise the Legal Aid Agency, which he said “was, no doubt, operating within the confines of a system imposed on it by others”, but he said the parties could not possibly have been expected to argue a case of this legal complexity by themselves.

“What I was faced with here was the profoundly disturbing fact that P does not qualify for legal aid but manifestly lacks the financial resources to pay for legal representation in circumstances where, to speak plainly, it was unthinkable that she should have to face the Queen’s Proctor’s application without proper representation,” he said.

He continued: “The state has simply its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the state itself has created to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. For what brought this matter to court was, to repeat, failures, mistakes, by the State, by the court system, and, specifically by judges.”

He added: “Moreover, the application has been mounted by an officer of the state, the Queen’s Proctor. Yet the state has declined all responsibility for ensuring that P is able to participate effectively in the proceedings.”

“Why should the state leave it to private individuals to ensure that hapless individuals like P and M, victims of the state’s failings, are able to obtain justice? Or is society in the twenty-first century content with the thought, excoriated well over a century ago by Matthew LJ, that justice, like the Ritz, is open to all?”, Munby said.

“It is deeply wrong and potentially most unfair that legal representation in a case like this, where it is a vital necessity, is available only if the lawyers, as here, agree to work for nothing.”

He thanked the solicitors, Sundeep and Paul Nuttall from Duncan Lewis and the barristers Janet Bazley QC and Katherine Dunseath from 1GC Family Law for their “professional dedication, commitment and sense of duty so conspicuously shown”.

The post ‘Victims of the justice system’ left to rely on free help from lawyers let down by courts, judiciary and legal aid, blasts former top family judge appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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A family business

Children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to become lawyers than children whose parents did a different job.

The figure appears in a new book on social mobility, The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, by London School of Economics (LSE) assistant professor Sam Friedman and US academic Daniel Laurison.

The researchers say that the likelihood of a person becoming a lawyer is 17 times higher if either of their parents have preceded them into the law. This parental influence, they argue, is part of the reason why working class people are under-represented in the professions.

Friedman’s and Laurison’s analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows that law is the second most inheritable of around 20 professions examined, behind medicine.

Last year, research revealed that privately educated lawyers are more likely to earn higher salaries, with the Sutton Trust saying that “the legal sector has a social mobility problem”.

The post Children of lawyers 17 TIMES more likely to become lawyers themselves appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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Former Welsh government lawyer convicted of serious sexual offences

A barrister jailed after pleading guilty to 37 charges relating to child sexual abuse has been removed from the legal profession.

John Guess, a former lawyer for the Welsh government, sexually abused a child, recorded and distributed images of the abuse, and possessed thousands of indecent images and videos, according to the Bar Tribunals & Adjudication Service (BTAS).

Guess, called to the bar by Middle Temple in 2000, was jailed in August last year for 20 years at Cardiff Crown Court.

Guess also “incited a girl under the age of 18 to expose herself to him in a sexual manner and to send him photographs of the behaviour”. Guess, according to BTAS, was also found in possession of ‘Category A’ indecent images, 1,000 ‘Category B’ images, 10,000 ‘Category C’ images, and multiple images and videos characterised as “extreme pornography”.

Commenting on the order to disbar, Bar Standards Board’s director of professional conduct, Sara Jagger said:

“Clearly a conviction for serious sexual offences is incompatible with continued membership of the Bar. The tribunal’s decision that he should be disbarred reflects this”.

The post Jailed paedophile barrister removed from legal profession appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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New procedure is labelled ‘justice-light’

Wikimedia

When David Beckham’s motoring case came up this week — he was caught driving his Bentley whilst on his mobile phone (the phone bit is the crime, not the Bentley) — the big news was not that Beckham was up for a motoring offence in the first place but that his case was not heard in a public court.

Under new money-saving rules, where a defendant pleads guilty to “non-imprisonable” crimes such as going through red lights and fair-dodging, the case can be heard by a single lay magistrate without an open court hearing and without the defendant attending.

Beckham was due to appear at Bromley Magistrates’ Court facing the prospect of six points on his licence and a £200 fine. Instead, he admitted to the offence by post.

Concerns have been raised about the new process, known as the single justice procedure. “A fundamental principle of our justice system is at stake here, justice needs to be seen to be done,” argues Jon Collins, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, “it should be open for public scrutiny.”

There is an additional problem too, says Collins, which is that if the whole process — from being charged with an offence to being found guilty of it — is done without a hearing, individuals do not fully appreciate its implications: “There is a risk that the system appears to be purely administrative rather than judicial. This is a serious process and you are pleading guilty to a criminal offence. Individuals may choose not to get legal advice, or may not explore possible defences they could use, and then end up with a criminal conviction.”

Penelope Gibbs, director at campaigning organisation, Transform Justice, labelled the procedure “justice-light” and told Legal Cheek that it had not been sufficiently scrutinised before being introduced:

“There is a real problem here that the whole process hinges on an individual receiving the correct paperwork in the post and clearly understanding what the process is. A significant percentage do not respond for a variety of reasons — if you do not respond to the notice in time, you are assumed to be guilty and convicted. Plus there is a real risk of a lack of understanding of what the implications are at the end of the process.”

One cautionary tale of individuals not appreciating the procedures and which hit the headlines a couple of years ago, concerns a businessman who had got on a London bus without paying for his ticket. He had forgotten his wallet and was let on as the bus driver agreed to let him pay another time (he frequently travelled on the route). A ticket inspector subsequently got on the bus and the individual was charged with fare evasion. When the notice came through, the busy businessman just agreed to pay the fine “to make it go away”. It was only when he was sent a penalty notice of almost £800 for not paying a £1.50 bus fare that he decided to appeal.

The single justice procedure is just one element of a £1 billion reform programme being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which also includes the introduction and roll-out of online courts. The House of Commons justice committee has launched an inquiry into concerns over access to justice as a result of the broader set of reforms.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has told the media that the single justice procedure provides what it calls “swift justice” that “reduces the burden on magistrates so they can focus on more serious cases.”

In an added twist to the Beckham case, Bromley Magistrates’ Court did confirm earlier this week that there would, after all, be an open court hearing (on 17 April) because, mysteriously, “further information” was required.

The post David Beckham plea-by-post highlights concerns over open justice appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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Weekly round-up of the top legal blogosphere posts

The Ministry of Justice has been accused of sitting on evidence that undermines its drive to close courts [BuzzFeed News]

A House with No Mirrors [A View From The North]

In probation, we’re poorly paid and the caseloads are unmanageable’ [The Guardian]

The journalist investigated by police for ‘using the wrong pronouns’ [The Spectator] (registration required)

When does AI infringe copyright? [The IPKat]

As a professor of law, I am convinced John Bercow’s Brexit decision is correct [Independent]

Why law firms should be a true meritocracy [Legal Futures]

Baby boomers v millennials [Law Society Gazette]

‘Well I’m definitely sticking around court for this arraignment tomorrow’ [Twitter]

Lecture: How can lawtech improve access to justice? [Legal Cheek Hub]

Event: Secrets to Success Birmingham — with Irwin Mitchell, VWV, Kings Chambers and ULaw [Legal Cheek Hub]

The post Best of the blogs appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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You won’t be Snapchatting a Supreme any time soon

The president of the Supreme Court says that she and her colleagues on the UK’s top court don’t use social media in case of being trolled.

Lady Hale said that among the reasons that top judges don’t have personal Twitter or Instagram accounts is the risk of “anonymous and extremely hurtful comment” that might affect their ability to decide cases impartially.

Hale was speaking to a parliamentary committee yesterday alongside deputy president Lord Reed.

The pair were delighted with the Supreme Court’s Twitter and Instagram accounts — “people look at it, a lot!” — but thought that individual judges using social media could lead to problems.

“Obviously it’s a good thing if it’s used positively”, Hale mused, “but on the other hand if you engage as an individual, it’s difficult if not impossible to control what you put out there. You have to be very careful not to put the wrong sort of information out there because you never know where it may get to.”

She added:

“There is also the capacity for anonymous and extremely hurtful comment to come along. It’s not that easy for people to shrug it off. It is very important that we go about our job in accordance with our oaths — ‘without fear or favour, affection or ill-will’ — and social media could distort that if we paid too much attention to it. So I’m very cautious.

Reed pointed out that Facebook snaps of judges holding a glass of bubbly at a family wedding, for example, would inevitably be used to illustrate stories. The Scottish judge claimed that, during the high-profile Gina Miller case, journalists trawled through the social media accounts of the justices’ wives, children and grandchildren in an effort to dig up dirt.

Supreme Court judges have frequently spoken out about the importance of maintaining their independence in the face of hostile media attention, with the Daily Mail‘s notorious “Enemies of the People” headline always cited as an example. Both judges said yesterday that media scrutiny had increased in recent years, with Reed noting “shriller adverse comment” about judges in the press.

Judges in other jurisdictions do use social media to promote public understanding of their work. Stephen Dillard, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia in the United States, is a prominent example.

The post Lady Hale says judges don’t use social media for fear of trolls appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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Issued formal advice

A family judge has been issued with “formal advice” on her conduct after banging her hand on her desk during the course of a hearing.

Judge Judith Hughes, who sits in London, spoke in a “sarcastic and condescending manner” towards an unrepresented party in an unknown family case, before taking out her frustrations on her desk.

A spokesperson for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) said: They [The Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor] took into consideration that HHJ Hughes took responsibility for her actions and expressed regret but decided that her behaviour failed to demonstrate the standards expected of a judicial office holder and have issued HHJ Hughes with formal advice”.

News of the reprimand comes just weeks after a High Court judge was issued with formal advice after “momentarily” dozing off in the course of an unknown case last year. Mrs Justice Parker, a family division judge, “expressed remorse for doing so”.

The post Frustrated family judge who banged hand on desk was ‘sarcastic and condescending’ appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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Vlogger chooses not to disclose identity online over fears of jeopardising future legal career

WaysToStudy (YouTube)

An anonymous undergraduate law student is the latest legally-minded vlogger to take to YouTube.

The YouTuber, who goes by the name, ‘Rose’, is the brains behind WaysToStudy, a popular channel on the video sharing website where she divulges student study tips and productivity life hacks to her 427,000 subscribers.

In one of her most viewed clips (915,000 out of her 13 million total views, and embedded below), the vlogger gives viewers a glimpse into her morning routine which involves waking up “as early as possible”, trawling through social media and catching up with schoolwork before heading off to law school. If viewers are left wondering what Rose gets up to upon returning home, there’s also an ‘after school’ offering.

MORNING ROUTINE OF A LAW STUDENT - YouTube

In another video snippet (below), Rose shares her study routine from the first day of term until exam day. Viewers can watch the law student type up lecture notes, flick through textbooks and take notes with an assortment of highlighters. Other highlight clips include: how to speed-read, coping with deadlines and mock trial stress, and law student essential supplies — sticky notes and colourful pens galore!

MY STUDY ROUTINE - study routine of a law student - YouTube

It’s not just YouTube where Rose has a significant online presence. The law student also has an Instagram page, @WaysToStudy, which boasts 227,000 followers and is jam-packed with aesthetically pleasing study snaps captioned with tips to boost productivity. One pic (embedded below) shows what appears to be law books stacked high — an image most law students will be familiar with.

View this post on Instagram

Time is ticking… I only have 3 days left (including today) to prepare myself for my exam period. On Monday and Tuesday the REAL studying starts because my first exam is on Wednesday. I’m stressed out & nervous but I am doing my best to get through all the study material (look at the pile of books in the picture: that is 75% of everything I need to remember for the exams this semester ) . Don’t take it personal if I don’t answer your DM. I try to answer as many as I can between the work I am doing but I can’t answer all of them bc I have exams. I do answer all of my comments (most of the time) so please just leave a comment if you want to ask something. How are you doing today? Are you just as stressed out as I am?

A post shared by WAYS TO STUDY (@waystostudy) on Jan 5, 2018 at 9:46am PST

So who is Rose? Unlike many online influencers gracing our screens, the mysterious YouTuber has chosen to remain anonymous. She has taken to her blog to explain why:

“I want to become a professor in a university or a judge in a high court like the International Court of Justice… and those people need to be taken seriously when they are going to work.”

Continuing, the anonymous blogger, who has plans to complete a master’s in international and European law, writes: “I know I have to work hard for that but it’s going to be worth it, because it’s my dream. To fulfil that dream, it is important to me to stay anonymous on YouTube, Instagram and [her blog]. I often get the question why I am never showing my face. It’s not out of insecurity but it’s a decision I made for myself when I started doing this… I want to be taken seriously by my future boss or the people when I am taking decisions for them as a judge or the students I am teaching our legal system and it’s values. I want those people to respect me when I am practising my job, and in my opinion that is not possible when my face, identity and personal life is all over the internet.”

It’s no wonder why Legal Cheek couldn’t verify her background. Conflicting reports suggest the law student is about 21-years-old and in the final year of her undergraduate degree. Though we do know she is based in the Netherlands, it is not clear exactly which institution she is studying at.

When we reached out to the mystery law student, she did have this to say:

“I started my YouTube channel as a way to visualise the tips and tricks I learned from my own experience as a law student at a university. In the future I would like to focus more on helping and inspiring students even though it might be hard to combine being a judge/professor with managing a business.”

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The post Meet the mysterious ‘life hack’ law student who has racked up 13 million views on YouTube appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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Matthew Feargrieve denies assault by beating

Royal Opera House (credit: Simdaperce)

A high-flying hedge fund lawyer “repeatedly punched” a fellow opera-goer in the shoulder after a row broke out over a coat on a seat, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard.

Matthew Feargrieve, a lawyer at London’s MF Consultancy, an independent legal advisory business, allegedly attacked classical music lover Ulrich Engler, during a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried at the Royal Opera House on 7 October last year.

The disagreement kicked off when Engler supposedly moved a coat belonging to Feargrieve’s wife from an empty seat and onto her lap, Court News UK (£) reports.

Matthew Feargrieve

It’s Engler’s account that he asked the 42-year-old lawyer — a former partner at London law firm Withers, according to his LinkedIn — whether it was ok if he sat in the vacant seat. With Feargrieve refusing the request, Engler is said to have picked up the coat and placed it on Feargrieve’s wife’s lap.

Again according to Engler, after the coat somehow ended up on the floor, Feargrieve allegedly told him: “How dare you talk to my wife like that?”, before proceeding to punch him three times on the shoulder.

However, the experienced Oxford-educated lawyer claims that Engel had actually asked his wife whether she had paid for the vacant seat, before throwing the coat to the floor. Feargrieve’s account is that his wife, who hasn’t been named in the report, then attempted to protect the jacket by moving towards it, only for Engel to push her so that she fell back towards her husband.

Feargrieve, who also spent two years at Appleby, the offshore outfit which hit headlines in 2016 after it was targeted by hackers, denies assault by beating. His trial is scheduled to start on 9 May.

Feargrieve has been approached for comment.

Comments on this article are closed for legal reasons.

The post Hedge fund lawyer ‘repeatedly punched’ fellow opera-goer in row over seat, court hears appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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It will dissolve on 24 June

One of the country’s leading chambers specialising in media and defamation law is to close later this year, pointing to an imbalance between senior and junior members brought about by a number of “unexpected departures and a retirement.”

In a statement this morning, One Brick Court said that despite its current financial stability, it remained vulnerable to “unplanned events”. The set — headed by Lord Garnier QC, the former solicitor general — will dissolve on 24 June.

The statement continued:

“We have decided to anticipate further potential difficulties in the medium to longer term future by arranging an orderly dissolution over the next three months. We would all have wished to carry on, but have regrettably concluded that this is no longer the responsible course to follow.”

Stressing that all members of chambers have been “united” during this “painful process”, the statement thanked those who have instructed it over the years for their support and understanding. “Meanwhile, we will carry on as normal and continue to accept instructions”, the statement adds.

Shortly after the announcement, fellow London-based media set, 5RB, said seven former One Brick Court tenants had joined its ranks. They are: Andrew Caldecott QC, Jane Phillips, Aidan Eardley, Kate Wilson, Jonathan Scherbel-Ball, Clara Hamer and Ben Gallop. Meanwhile, Doughty Street Chambers confirmed ex-One Brick Court members Heather Rogers QC, Caroline Addy and Claire Overman would be joining the set.

The post Leading media chambers One Brick Court to close following ‘unexpected departures’ appeared first on Legal Cheek.

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