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May 23, 2015

A new injustice: lack of legal advice for those who breach anti-social behaviour injunctions

There was concern when the government proposed that the new anti-social behaviour orders should be imposed in county courts. These new injunctions can lead to imprisonment if breached – so “criminal” sanctions are being meted out in civil courts. The laws are new but there are a steady flow of breach cases before the courts. These are deemed “contempt of court” cases, but are attracting prison sentences up to six months long. Most of the prison sentences, or suspended sentences, are imposed for someone being in an area from which the court has excluded them, ie not a criminal offence. There are many aspects of these cases that disturb me, but particularly whether the process is a fair one. It is not clear from most of the cases cited on the judiciary website whether those accused had legal representation, but the transcripts of a particular case in Pontypridd County Court are available.  Andrew Lewis, the man accused of breaching his ASB injunction was unrepresented throughout, despite the threat of a prison sentence. The kindly judge, District Judge Doel, encouraged him to seek legal advice, particularly since he missed a breach hearing when the judge sentenced him to six months imprisonment.  The judge gave him a chance to challenge that sentence, but Andrew could not find any lawyer who would represent him, given that it was a civil case.  Andrew appeared to live a chaotic life anyway, dominated by alcoholism.  The kindly police officer in court confirmed this: “I grew up with Andrew and he’s a nice guy when he’s sober.  But he’s an absolute pain in the butt when he’s drunk… it’s his drink dependency, and he needs help”.  No-one in court was available to offer that help, but the District Judge accepted a heartfelt apology from Andrew and reduced his sentence.  A reading of all the transcripts confirms how lack of representation is creating huge problems and potential injustices in the courts.   In this case a very kind judge advised Andrew to get advice and then helped him through the court process when he couldn’t get a lawyer.  But this judge appears to have gone out of his way to help.  A recent similar case got to the Court of Appeal. The judge there deemed the legal aid system disgracefully complex.  In this case lawyers had tried to get legal aid for an injunction case and were rebuffed. I worry that these two cases may be the tip of the iceberg – that most new ASB injunctions are being imposed on those who have no representation, and that people are also being imprisoned without representation.  This can’t be right.