14:17, October 01 46 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-01 14:17:03
Democracy at a low point, bishop tells judges at ceremony

The Bishop of London has cautioned judges at the formal opening of the legal year that British democracy is at one of its “low points” and rebuked the government’s justice policy of letting “prisons proliferate”.

Delivering the sermon in Westminster Abbey on Tuesday, the Rt Rev Dame Sarah Mullally referred to the “chaos and confusion” of the Brexit crisis and praised Magna Carta for holding the King – and by implication the executive – to account.

The annual ceremony for the start of the legal year was held precisely a week after the supreme court handed down its unanimous 11-0 judgment overturning Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis.

Hundreds of the UK’s most senior, bewigged judges in their traditional scarlet and ermine, purple-embroidered or blue-lapelled robes thronged the abbey and took their places for the hour-long service.

The lord chancellor and justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC MP, gave the first reading on Solomon’s judgment. The King’s threat to cut a disputed baby in two was probably not intended as a modern parable for the Conservative party, he said.

But Bishop Mullally’s sermon required less interpretation. Recalling the prophet Amos who declared “Let justice roll down like a mighty stream”, she said: “I don’t think he really meant let police forces expand, let prisons proliferate, let criminals get their just deserts.

“Justice in the Bible is less to do with conviction of the guilty and more to do with the care of the innocent.” Scripture, she said, is more concerned with “widows, orphans and aliens – the vulnerable”.

She continued: “The rule of law in this country has arisen out of this biblical tradition. The concern of the law with justice … law holds the powerful to account and protects the vulnerable.

“Interestingly, the 61st clause of Magna Carta, known as the security clause, declared that a council of 25 barons be created with power to overrule the will of the King by force if necessary …

“Sometimes, as human leaders, we get it wrong. The wisdom of Solomon in our reading gives way later to Solomon’s folly where he has 700 wives, 300 concubines and sacrifices to false gods.

“Likewise for all the high points of British democracy, there are low points, too. Arguably our present situation is one of them. Filled with chaos and confusion, it is one in which wisdom is required.”

Her comments came as the charity Inquest, which supports relatives at coroners’ courts, released figures exposing the low level of legal support for those who lost family members in the care of state bodies.

The figures, obtained by Freedom of Information (FoI) requests with BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme, show that last year £41,265 was granted by the Legal Aid Agency towards legal fees for families’ representation for those who had died in police custody.

By contrast, the 32 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that replied showed their legal bills for the inquests came to nearly £410,000 – 10 times the amount granted for families’ legal costs.

Julie’s Mental Health Foundation submitted similar FoI requests to 53 mental health trusts in England asking how much they spent on lawyers at inquests in the financial year 2017-2018.

Among the 26 trusts that responded, expenditure on legal representation at inquests was around £4m. In the same year the Legal Aid Agency paid a total of £118,000 towards fees for legal representation at inquests for families following the death of a relative in contact with mental health services.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest said: “Inquests following state-related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet families face state lawyers funded at public expense who work together to limit the remit and put defence of their interests above the search for the truth.

“This inequality of arms is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families … the shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed.”