Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington!

I’ve only just recovered from the last head/desk interfacing session, brought on as ever by whatever was the latest episode of craven stupidity from our Glorious Leaders. I’ve forgotten what it was now, there are so many. The bruises were healing nicely. And apart from anything else, I needed to indulge in some gainful employment, specifically Trial On Tour 7: The Croydon Facelift. I hadn’t had to resort to a blogging outburst for several weeks.

But like those Clapham omnibuses, on which the reasonable man of law is supposed to travel, you don’t get one for ages and then several come along at once. So it is with this week’s state of the justice system. I found myself once again turning up the volume of the stereo to 11, putting on my loudest, angriest hardcore punk (I can recommend any tracks by Black Flag for this), and thudding head to desk once more.

The first incident which brought this on was the speech by our current Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, in the LawWorks Annual Pro Bono Awards Lecture 2016. The speech was delivered on 5.12.16 and you can read a full copy here.

Now I’m sure the Master of the Rolls is well meaning, not to mention adroit with the epée. But when he suggests that the civil courts should deliberately be turned into amateur hour, with unqualified and potentially unsuitable pretend ‘lawyers’ unleashed into court rooms to represent those who would otherwise be litigants in person, it just offers further proof to those of us out at the coalface that these days, common sense often seems to be jettisoned out of the nearest window for the sake of expediency by the upper echelons of the judiciary.

Yes, you read that right: the plan is to get random non-lawyers to actually exercise rights of audience in real cases in proper courts when COMPLETELY UNQUALIFIED TO DO SO. Simply because they’ve volunteered and are, well, there.

This radical and unhelpful proposal soon had me humming not so much any of my three-chord faves, but rather some verses of Noel Coward.

“Regarding yours, dear Mrs Worthington,
Of Wednesday the 23rd,
Although your baby may be,
Keen on a stage career,
How can I make it clear,
That this is not a good idea…”

dingdong

(Our well-meaning Master of the Drolls (or, er, possibly not): pic by Wildy)

So what exactly is being talked about here? Well, the first warning clang comes in para 6 of the speech, when the operating system of what’s termed the OSC (that’s Online Solutions Court to you, but will no doubt soon be known as Online Shit Crock) is explained. Apparently many, if not most, of the decisions about the progress of a case through the OSC will be through “giving an active role to new case officers, most of whom will be legally trained and under the supervision of the judiciary”.

Let’s “unpack that”, to use the MOJ management speak vernacular. There is no explanation as to who these “new case officers” will be. Are these to be new appointments to the MOJ roster? Or are they those admin staff who currently work behind the scenes at the court centres? (Where usually you can’t even get anyone to answer the phone.)  Or ushers, perhaps? Would that be from the cohort of HMCTS court staff who’ve been violently culled over the last few years when court after court has been closed, maybe?

And how “legally trained” will they be? Done law A level? Read some Nutshells? Looked up a couple of things on Wikipedia? What is sure is that they won’t be qualified legal professionals, since if they were their services would come at a price commensurate with, well, properly qualified people. And you can bet your bottom dollar that such proper professional remuneration won’t be on the agenda of the MOJ. So if you’re tumbled into the new OSC system, just remember that.

Presumably such case officers will be under pressure to conform to whatever MOJ stats apply to the timing of such cases as well? There will be edicts to whizz cases through the system as quickly as possible, no doubt at the potential expense of them actually being conducted fairly and thoroughly, so they can be crossed off the list. There is likely to be pressure to settle placed on the parties so the file can be closed by the court. That might be called ‘conflict of interest’ by professional lawyers under their respective Codes of Conduct, but perhaps the case officers won’t be bound by a such a Code?

Apparently, according to para 7, for cases that don’t settle “case officers will help the parties identify relevant evidence” and “judges will be their own lawyers and research the legal issues applicable to the proceedings”. Does this sound like a complete dumbing down of the justice system to you, because it does to me? This sounds, in fact, like the beginnings of the introduction of an inquisitorial system into civil proceedings, by stealth and without any consultation. The one thing judges ought NOT to be doing is entering into the arena and providing legal advice to either party, whether with or without the conduit of a case officer – who may have some legal training, but equally may not. After all, the Master of the Rolls only said “most of them” would be legally trained, didn’t he?

“For her to hope,
Dear Mrs Worthington,
Is on the face of it absurd,
Her personality
Is not in reality
Inviting enough,
Exciting enough
For this particular sphere…”

The OSC system is apparently to deal with cases up to £25k in value, but what’s the betting that it won’t be long before there’s a suggestion that this figure should be increased? And before you know it, any civil case up to a six-figure value could be dealt with by the equivalent of an am-dram performance.

Now, none of this is new. But what did strike me and a number of other MOJ watchers was that the MoR went further, and has now proposed that the expansion of pro bono legal advice – and not only in behind-the-scenes litigation assistance (which is actually fairly commonplace in the civil sphere). Nope, what is suggested in para 26 is “increasing the availability of free legal representation in respect of some court proceedings”.

Yes, a member of the senior judiciary appears to actually be suggesting that rights of audience should be massively expanded, to enable the unqualified to actually stand up in court and represent the unwary and unsuspecting punter. Oooh, Mrs Worthington!

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage,
The profession is overcrowded
And the struggle’s pretty tough
And admitting the fact
She’s burning to act,
That isn’t quite enough…”

Para 28 spells it out. This means apparently that “graduates – who have undergone academic and vocational training and who are under the supervision of qualified lawyers under the expanded advice scheme” but, crucially, who haven’t completed full training – would be permitted to carry out activities which you’d normally expect to have to be fully qualified in order to conduct.

That is, having completed a training contract or a pupillage. For which, no doubt, you have had to toil for perhaps seven years and undergo gruelling and highly competitive selection rounds in order to obtain. Which must be making those people at the civil Bar, for example, wonder why they bothered to spend all that time and money fighting to get through qualifying at all.

Insultingly, the proposition seems to be that this mess should be facilitated by members of the actual profession themselves. How? By lending, amongst other things, our professional indemnity insurance to cover these unqualified representatives! Because it’s we qualified lawyers who would be expected to offer the necessary supervision, via volunteering at the various university advice projects or pro bono centres through which the Powers That Be foresee these schemes operating.

No doubt you have now spotted the flaw in the scheme, which will be that many Chambers and firms – who have to fund training places and pupillages out of their own pockets (unlike, say, the medical profession, where training places are funded by Government) – will start to wonder what the point of doing that is, if any Tom, Dick and Harriet who has done a law course but never qualified professionally can exercise rights of audience any old how and any old where.

Indeed, the whole idea appears to be the undermining of competitive professional qualification routes, since at para 30 it’s openly suggested that by being able to exercise rights of audience, the unqualified “would gain entry into practice”. Almost unbelievably, the MoR appears to be advocating an increase in the numbers of qualified lawyers practising. Hang on, aren’t we always being told that there’s an over-supply of lawyers already? FFS!

Of course, this being the MOJ, it will not be a million miles away that suddenly some over-keen civil servant (who’s never set foot in a court room but has seen a couple of episodes of Judge John Deed) will start to think to themselves that if this sort of system can be imposed on the civil courts, why can’t this sorry scheme also be brought to bear on the criminal sphere?

After all, what difference could it make? Just because the Defendant is at risk of losing his liberty, rather than a wedge of cash? Well, it can’t be that hard? Can it?

The idea that this might come to pass in our criminal courts is, frankly, both depressing and terrifying. But believe me, that doesn’t mean that the MOJ aren’t considering it. FFS.

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage.
She’s a bit of an ugly duckling
You must honestly confess,
And the width of her seat
Would surely defeat
Her chances of success,
It’s a loud voice, and though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage.
On my knees, Mrs Worthington,
Please, Mrs Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage…”

I suppose we should expect this sort of dangerous, misguided thinking to have permeated down through the MOJ to the senior judiciary, when we have a Lord Chancellor who is so patently unsuited for, and unqualified for, her own role.

Only a day after the Master of the Rolls’ own speech, Liz Truss (who sounds increasingly like some sort of rhyming slang) was giving Parliament the benefit of her own brand of ‘wisdom’ when she addressed the House about the current prisons crisis.

As the Independent observed here, even her own colleague, the Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah, was “unable to suppress a smirk” when she suggested that the solution to the problem of drones dropping drugs into prison yards for felons was… employing a pack of canines to bark at the flying saucers to put them off! I shit you not!

screenshot-2016-12-06-153712

The Mirror captured the glorious moment of unintended comedy (above).

I’ve watched the video a number of times now. I can’t get my head around it. This creature has the future of our justice system in her hot little hands, yet her own colleagues can’t seem to take her seriously. For what reason has she been promoted so vastly in excess of her clearly limited talents, to have made it to the position where she was asked to don the ermine jacket? Does she really look in the mirror each morning and say to herself, “You’ve got this, Liz!”?

She’s like those children you used to hate when you were at primary school, who always wanted the lead role in the school play, even though they couldn’t sing a note in tune and were incapable of acting for toffee. But who were so blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings that they’d stand mid stage, proudly declaiming all their lines in the wrong order, oblivious to the giggles from the audience when they royally f**ked the scene up.

Looking at that barking mad dogs-against-drones suggestion again, you can only marvel at the effrontery of her advisors. I mean, someone actually gave her those lines and told her it would be a good idea to spout all this nonsense! In public! On Parliament TV! Was it done for some sort of bet?

Gyimah’s reaction was nothing to the astonished guffaws from criminal justice professionals, mind. Every time Truss opens her mouth about any topic except cheese – be it the courts, the prisons, probation, etc etc – she shows herself to be so manifestly not up to the job that you wonder just how far, and how fast, she can keep digging the hole. It’s just like Noel Coward said.

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage,
Though they said at the school of acting
She was lovely as Peer Gynt,
I’m afraid on the whole
An ingénue role
Would emphasize her squint,
She’s a big girl, and though her teeth are fairly good
She’s not the type I ever would
Be eager to engage,
No more buts, Mrs Worthington,
NUTS, Mrs Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage…”

 

You can hear the full Noel Coward ditty here. Meanwhile, I have to shuffle off to prepare another trial, which thankfully, I am manifestly qualified to conduct. But first, I’ve just got time for a little bit more head banging before I go…

 

giphy-headbang

 

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington!

  1. Hurrah! From a retired but truly frustrated family barrister, Liz Truss is a disgrace and the government should be ashamed of having the cheek to promote her. I fear for my beloved profession,

  2. Pingback: Brown wipe-clean trousers in the hand-cart to Hell | Oxford Inciter

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