July brought with it a series of dramatic sagas for the United Kingdom’s legal industry. While there have been many attention-grabbing stories, such as the termination of the Rwandan-bound migrant extradition flight, there have also been some very significant developments occurring within the foundations of the UK’s legal system. Disputes over fees for criminal proceedings have led to criminal barristers going on strike, attempting to highlight the dire nature of the industry as well as their own plights. Further, a High Court Judge, Justice Mostyn, has been voicing concerns over the current protections preventing the naming of wealthy divorcees and how this enables them to protect their assets. Mr Mostyn was also present to adjudicate over a tumultuous case wherein one man attempted to have his opposition’s representation thrown in jail.
Read on to see more detailed breakdowns of these individual stories.
Barristers On Strike
Following on from June's legal round up, barrister strikes continue to be arguably the most important story of July 2022. These concern the entirety of the nation’s criminal justice system and paving the way toward the proverbial "legal Armageddon". Criminal barristers have been periodically on strike for the past four weeks and intend to carry on striking on an alternate week basis, without an end date planned.
These strikes have been long in the works and represent something very worrying, both for the UK’s legal system and for the state as a whole. The criminal justice process appears to be falling apart at the seams; the Secret Barrister’s blog detailing the occurrences preceeding this strike offers further insight into this. This section will outline the key failings highlighted by these barristers and what they mean for the courts and the country.
Firstly, pay issues. Since 2006, criminal legal-aid fees, which are paid by the government, have been cut by 25 percent. This has caused the average criminal barrister’s salary to sit at £47,000 a year. However, not only does this not include any form of benefits — healthcare, pension, holiday, sick pay, overtime or maternity leave — it is also not indicative of the road individuals must take to get to the barrister position. Junior barristers at the start of their careers are paid a median salary of just over £12,000 a year for their first three years when they work an almost 70-hour work week - far below minimum wage.
According to the Secret Barrister, nearly 40 percent of junior barristers left their position in their first year. In the last five years, 25 percent of all barristers have quit and 83 percent of barristers have either been forced to go into debt or their personal savings. Their low wages exist because their work is not paid hourly but rather by the case which, combined with the government’s low fixed rate, creates incredibly low earnings.
The negative impacts of this problem are far-reaching. There is a backlog of nearly 60,000 unseen cases currently in the legal system as without barristers to try or defend cases they simply cannot go ahead. For instance, murder trials at the Old Bailey are being postponed as there is not anyone there to actually prosecute the cases. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Crown Prosecution Service’s employee numbers had been cut by 25 percent and in the past years nearly 40 percent of the UK courts have either been closed or sold off, as well as the new Covid "Nightingale" courts being quietly shuttered too.
Man Attempts to Have Opposition’s Representation Thrown in Prison
A recent development in a personal legal battle between a man (Mr Ahmed) and his ex-wife saw a failed attempt to have her solicitor thrown in jail for contempt. This particular dispute brought a more worrisome instance to light, as highlighted by Justice Mostyn.
Firstly, Mr Ahmed argued that the firm Russell and Russell had ignored a disclosure notice, thus leading to contempt for the court. The solicitor in question (Mr Khan) told the presiding judge (Justice Mostyn) that the notice applied only to him rather than to the firm as a whole. Mr Khan then applied to disregard the notice as his client had been a victim of domestic abuse, thus invalidating the request to reveal the location of her residence.
Justice Mostyn commented that Mr Ahmed’s motives were “illegitimate and ulterior”, judging his attempt to have the opposition simply removed rather than defeated unacceptable to the court. Mr Khan further asked to have his expenses of approximately £16,000 covered, though Justice Mostyn decided not to make a ruling on this.
Justice Mostyn went on to note that the fact that a large firm of solicitors — “officers of the court” — had ignored a disclosure notice was greatly disturbing. Whether that failure is due to wilful poor decision-making or a lack of ability remains unclear at this time.
Wealthy Divorcees Maintaining Anonymity
Justice Mostyn has also recently announced a "last" judgement on the practice of anonymisation in the family court system, outlining that wealthy couples getting divorced must be named.
In the divorce case Gallagher v Gallagher, the husband applied for a reporting restriction/anonymisation order, arguing that the release of his name would affect his business interests. Justice Mostyn argues that this practice actually detracts from the principles of open justice and thus a Parliamentary Act would need to be passed in order for this to become an option for those in court.
Scott v Scott, an earlier case, demonstrated that when proceedings are conducted in private, seldom little information actually remains that way. The conclusion of this case also maintained with “binding authority” that the standardised anonymisation of judgements must not be allowed to establish itself.
Alongside confusing rubrik, the risk of anonymisation appears to be rising. Private hearings may exclude the participation of the public but are no different than public hearings in any other way and as such are able to be reported on. In Gallagher v Gallagher, the argument in rejecting the appeal for anonymisation stated that “the public had a right to know” not only if very wealthy individuals are in court fighting with their ex-spouses but who they are and what they are fighting about.