Monthly Archives: September 2015

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Community Advice Offer extended to More Courts

Guest blog by Joanne Thomas  (see author note below)

Introduction: “People in Court sometimes need more advice than just legal advice

Many of the people who come through magistrates’ court commit low-level offences and go on to commit them again and again without the underlying causes being tackled. Typically, the seriousness of offences means they receive fines or conditional discharges and therefore no support from statutory agencies. But very often they end up returning to court – 40% of fines go unpaid and a third of people receiving a conditional discharge reoffend within a year.

The South West model

In South West England, action is taken to stop this revolving door via CASS (http://cassplus.org/). CASS is a service that has been running for almost ten years and provides support to people coming to court in Plymouth, Truro and Bodmin. It is open to anyone – defendants, but also victims, witnesses and family members. There are very few limits on the kind of help that the service will provide. While there are some mainstays – namely drug and alcohol treatment referrals, information about community mental health care, practical support with debts or benefits – CASS has helped clients across with a huge range of issues. See our recent evaluation of this service here

The Community Advice Service at Highbury

Inspired by this work, we at the Centre for Justice Innovation worked with partners from the North London Local Justice Area over 18 months to see whether we could set up something similar at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court. The result is the Community Advice service, which has been delivered by RCJ Advice Bureau (http://www.rcjadvice.org.uk/) from the court since January 2015. Attending court can be confusing and intimidating, so the service works to identify those in need of immediate help, engaging the majority through proactive targeting in court rooms and public areas, as well as receiving referrals from solicitors, court staff and probation. The people seen present with a range of difficulties, with the most common being housing, benefits and debt, and mental health.  

Community Advice is currently delivered by a paid coordinator and team of CAB-trained volunteers. It provides immediate help and advice with practical issues such as benefit claims, debt and housing, as well as offering emotional support. It also helps people find out about and access long-term support services in the community such as alcohol treatment, mental health services and supported housing.

But most importantly of all, the service needs to know if it is making a difference to those using it. The team follows up with everyone who agrees to this for up to six months to check on their progress and see if they need any more support. The outcomes being reported are very positive, with 60% of people contacted at six months saying their issues have been resolved. Additionally, at two weeks, a third reported their issues were either resolved or better, rising to almost two thirds two months after using the service. A third of people using the service had visited the referrals that had been made by the service after two weeks, and this increased to 80% by two months. The majority of people at all stages of follow-up reported a high levels of helpfulness from the services to which they had been referred.  


Could More be Done?

With such positive outcomes, the question remains as to why this kind of service is not more prevalent. Pulling together the right partners and identifying funding can be challenging, but tackling the underlying problems that lead people to commit crime not only helps the individual but can also help the criminal justice system to meet its aims as well as being better for society overall. 

Conclusion

We remain keen to identify and work with other courts to recognise the benefits of services such as this and where appropriate to develop similar initiatives that respond to the needs of the people who continue to come through their courts time and again. 

The author

Joanne Thomas is Innovative Practice Manager at the Centre for Justice Innovation, a research and development charity which works towards a British justice system that reduces crime and in which all of our people can place their trust.

  
 

Community Advice at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court

Community Advice offered in Court

A new court-based Advice Service at Highbury Court is most welcome!

 See also this blog by Joanne Thomas

The Magistrates Court is not somewhere people associate with receiving advice, other than the occasional finger-wagging lecture from a Justice of the Peace, usually warning of the consequences of not complying with their instructions. Yet the vast majority of people who pass through their doors are clearly in need of advice and help in tackling the kinds of problem that brought them to Court in the first place.

Homelessness, mental health, unemployment, poverty, debt, alcoholism, drug addiction, illiteracy, overcrowded accomodation, domestic violence, the Courts often see some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.

Of course the Probation service can sometimes help, but are suffering from funding restraints as well as outsourcing, and  Community Orders are increasingly targetted at punishment rather than rehabilitaion.

Often solicitors defending at these Courts try to plug the gap in the lack of advice available, but apart from constraints on time and money have to be careful not to blur the professional boundary between lawyer and client, as well as acknowledging that we are not trained counsellors or social workers, lacking the resources and knowledge to advice on the areas that need addressing outside the immediacy of legal representation. Often lawyers do not even know where to direct clients who need help in other areas.

All this has changed with this exciting project at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court.From January of this year, the project has been offering help and advice from a small room accessed from the same waiting area as the Courtrooms on the first floor. And as there is plenty of waiting at Court, there is time for the people who desperately need help and advice to talk about their problems and receive practical help and guidance.

Last week I popped in to see how they were getting on. I was impressed by the set-up and those running it, but more so by the verifiable results they could demonstrate, and the numerous cases they could describe showing practical examples of problem-solving for clients.

The community Advice is run by Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau incorporating Islington Citizens Advice. It follows a longer running pilot project in Plymouth. Since opening they have helped hundreds of court users with issues such as homelessness, debts, housing, family, mental health, benefits, alcohol and drug related issues.

I met Jess, a volunteer (working there one day a week) and Ross, the co-ordinator for the project who told me:- 

We work with people who are using the court and their families to give advice and help them to find out about and access support services in the community. We also provide immediate help with practical issues and offer emotional support. We are independent of the judicial process. We operate independently from other agencies in the court. The service is delivered primarily by a team of 10 volunteers and one paid staff (co-ordinator) and focuses mainly on those who are not working with probation, though we are open to all” .

Ross provided numerous case studies. I attach an edited version of one below. 

I later spoke to Joanne Thomas from the Centre for Justice Innovation who proudly told me the Advice Service at Highbury was “doing an incedible job”. Joanne has previously written about the project here.

Conclusion

For too long the criminal justice system has been used to punish criminal acts, without addressing the causes of crime, even where the perpetrators are crying out for help. Judges, like lawyers, are not social workers, and have to uphold the law. But if we are to avoid the “revolving door” syndrome, and break the cycle of recidivism, then taking an opportunity to tackle root causes with practical help, is not only humane and just, it is likely to prove a cost-effective way to reduce crime 

Case Study

Paul (not his real name) was 35 years old and homeless when he attended court because of drug offences. He had a large number of previous convictions and his relationship had broken down. He was suffering severe financial hardship, receiving no income and owing money to a number of people on top of the court fines he had just received. He was also suffering from drug and alcohol dependence that was affecting his mental health. In addition, he had lost his birth certificate and wanted help to apply for a CSCS card.

Paul was empowered to make his own decisions about what to do, assisted in applying for jobseekers allowance, and referred him to a number of services for his mental health, drug and alcohol use and homelessness. He was also guided on applying for his CSCS card and birth certificate as well as helped to access support for his debts.

There were Follow up appointments. He is now in receipt of jobseekers allowance and is managing to pay his priority debt (his court fines) as well as sorting out his other debts. He has received his CSCS card and is looking for work in construction, and has received his birth certificate. He is also receiving counselling for his mental health.

David Wilson:- 1014-or the Long Prehistory of Magna Carta

Guest Blog by David Wilson (Director, TV Series Producer)Reproduced with his kind permission, this article was first published on David’s website here.

1014-or the long prehistory of Magna Carta 

This year with many books and exhibitions we remember the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. That’s terrific, but however important the events of 1215, as it turned out, don’t imagine that they were only, or even the first time an English king had been wrestled to the conference table by his subjects.
We should perhaps have been celebrating two years ago – and the anniversary would have been millennial. 1014 saw the penultimate crisis in the disastrous reign of Aethelred the ‘Unready’ [978-1016]. Son of the great Edgar, whose prestige dominated the British isles and glowed throughout Europe, this ‘badly-advised’ [unraed in old English, hence ‘unready’] monarch brought his Kingdom to destruction by a mixture of willful politics and military failure. Assailed by renewed attacks from Denmark, latterly led by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard, in the winter of 1013 Aethelred lost control of the country altogether, and was forced to seek refuge with his brother-in-law Duke Richard of Normandy. As he clambered aboard the longship which took him to Rouen, Aethelred may have thought the disaster final. But suddenly, at the moment of triumph, Sweyn Forkbeard died. For the English there was a last opportunity to restore the situation and they took it. Sweyn’s Danish army were for enthroning his young son Canute, but somehow, all pulling together, the English elite resisted, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates:

‘The fleet all chose Canute for king; whereupon advised all the counsellors of England, clergy and laity, that they should send after King Aethelred; saying, that no sovereign was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern them better than he did before. Then sent the king hither his son Edward, with his messengers; who had orders to greet all his people, saying that he would be their faithful lord – would better each of those things that they disliked — and that each of the things should be forgiven which had been either done or said against him; provided they all unanimously, without treachery, turned to him. Then was full friendship established, in word and in deed and in compact, on either side. And every Danish king they proclaimed an outlaw for ever from England. Then came King Aethelred home, in Lent, to his own people; and he was gladly received by them all.’

Here for the first time we can see that conditions are being imposed on the king in return for the throne. The situation must have been not unlike that at Runnymede, more than two hundred years later. This was a king whose political and military failure had made him vulnerable to demands from his subjects.
What those demands were we can surmise from a sermon preached at the time by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York which has become famous as the Sermon of ‘the Wolf’ to the English. It was probably given in the presence of King Aethelred and his council, and it indicates the kind of issues that were exercising them: injustice, excessive taxes and treason.
‘the rights of freemen are taken away and the rights of slaves are restricted and charitable obligations are curtailed. Free men may not keep their independence, nor go where they wish, nor deal with their property just as they desire…

Nothing has prospered now for a long time either at home or abroad, but there has been military devastation and hunger, burning and bloodshed in nearly every district time and again… And excessive taxes have afflicted us…’
Experts think that the wording of the Chronicle is copied from a writ or document which Aethelred issued, which would have detailed the agreement. Eleventh-century writs were letters sent by the King to his governors in the shires, often specifically to be read out in the Shire court; such writs always began with ‘The King greets his people…’ as in the Chronicle. Usually the extent to whiuch kingship relies on the consent of the governed is concealed beneath the rhetoric of royal power. Here, that consent is made public. In the context of the, for this period, unusual sophistication of the English monarchy, working as it did through shire and hundred [district] assemblies, this is even more revealing. In administering the shires, the king’s officials relied, as we have seen, on the empanelment of juries, that is the participation of his subjects in their government. It seems that both at this subordinate level and at the highest reaches of politics, the English felt they had rights, that, as in the forests of Germany centuries before, sovereignty emanated, not just from above, from God, but also to some extent from below, from the people.
 Constitutional encounters of this kind happened elsewhere in Europe at roughly this time, but what makes 1014 special for us is that the agreement comes at the beginning of a continuing series of such deals which would govern the development of the English state down to our own times. Four years later, after Canute had eventually defeated Aethelred’s successor, he found himself making a similar agreement in Oxford, which he was to reiterate in two celebrated ‘Letters to the English’ in 1019 and 1027. King Edward the Confessor [the Edward in fact who crossed from Normandy to begin the negotiations in 1014] inherited this dispensation, and reconfirmed it publicly in 1065. The way he ruled was explicitly the basis of the regime of his Norman successors. That was made clear in the Charter issued by Henry I at his Coronation in 1100, which itself in turn became the basis of the restoration of order by Henry II after the ‘anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign. Henry I’s Coronation Charter was also instrumental in the negotiations before Magna Carta. Thence, by way of Magna Carta itself, we reach Simon de Montfort, the ‘comune of England’ and the beginnings of Parliament. 

There was nothing inevitable about this, as there was nothing inevitable, indeed, about the survival of England as unified kingdom, but the fact remains that English constitutional history descends in a direct line, not unlike the monarchy itself, from those tense discussions in the aftermath of Danish disaster.
David Wilson 2015

Prison Books: Helping to Turn over a New leaf

The decision earlier this year by Justice Secretary Michael Gove to lift the ban on family and friends sending books to prisoners was welcome

Anybody who describes prison as a “holiday camp” has either never been to prison, or never been on holiday- the reality of contemporary incarceration is boredom from enforced idleness, interspersed with occasional violence (assaults are rife) but little support for rehabilitation programmes or tackling prevalent issues of mental health. Cuts to staffing levels have overlapped with a rapidly rising prison population. Recent reports by the Prison Inspectorate have been damming.

Books do not in themselves provide a panacea, but they are a good start. They provide education, help literacy and personal development, and broaden the mind.

The book ban introduced by Gove’s predecessor Chris Grayling was a vindictive, unjustified act.

The purpose of prison is punishment and rehabilitation- the first is implicit in the removal of liberty by being locked up, the second currently not achieved by draconian policies that fail to tackle the root causes of offending behaviour. In Nelson Mandela’s moving autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, he writes of the value and importance of books to him through his long period of imprisonment. Everyone but Grayling could see the value of books within prison.

In March last year I joined a demonstration against the book ban outside Pentonville prison organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform, and supported by authors including the Poet Laureate. See a short video clip here.

The reversal came initially as a result of a successful Judicial Review brought by solicitor Samuel Genen and counsel (all acting pro-bono) -read more about that here. The High Court ruled the policy was unlawful. Gove then confirmed in July the complete relaxation of the unfair and arbitrary rules Grayling introduced. That is a victory- unlawful policies do not always lead to policy reversal -look at the vexed issue of prisoner voting.

Now we no longer have a book ban, and we now longer have Grayling despoiling the office of Lord Chancellor. So what of his successor?

Gove has said that “the most useful thing we can do is make sure prisoners are usefully employed, and improve literacy, numeracy and work skills”. Will he act or are these just “words”?

I would suggest the most useful thing Gove could do would be to reduce the prison population by crime prevention and successful rehabilitation, and reducing the numbers imprisoned for pointless short sentences for non-violent crime.  This in turn would save money, which could be redeployed to properly fund the Justice system. Government cuts to Legal aid have put our Justice system at risk. The spending cuts were ideological, deferring costs elsewhere in the system.

Grayling was a wrecker, who for what he hoped would gain him short term popularity damaged both the Criminal Justice system and an effective penal system.

Gove has a long way to go to fix these problems, but reversing the book ban was a good start.

Published on International Literacy Day, 08 september 2015

An earlier version of this article was published here in the Islington Tribune in July this year