Following a leaked report, a government department is under criminal investigation

Theresa May and the Ministry of Justice logo
John Shafthauer

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been accused of trying to cover up a report. The report covered the increase of unrepresented defendants in Crown Court. The MoJ denies a cover up, but BuzzFeed reports a criminal investigation has now been launched into the matter.

Unrepresented defendants

Legal experts and charities warned about the effects of government cuts to legal aid. One issue caused by MoJ ‘savings‘ was an increase in people representing themselves. Legal experts have claimed this trend has increased miscarriages of justice and delays in the legal system.

The government commissioned a report on unrepresented defendants in Crown Court. This report was not released. Following a freedom of information (FOI) request from BuzzFeed News, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) compelled the government to release the report.

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The report it released was six pages long, but it was alleged that a 36-page version existed. That version was said to contain ‘politically embarrassing research’. The report was dated 08/2016, and was based on interviews with judges and prosecutors in 2015. It followed reforms introduced in 2012 under the coalition government.

The longer report was leaked to BuzzFeed News. Although the six-page version is labelled as an ‘analytical summary’, an MoJ spokesperson claimed the longer version was an ‘early draft’. The government was reported to the ICO over the leaked report, though. And on 25 May, BuzzFeed reported that a criminal investigation into the MoJ had been launched.

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Legality

The MoJ turned down the initial FOI, claiming the report would be used for “the formulation or development of government policy”. This type of information would be a listed exemption. The ICO disagreed it applied in this case, though, and compelled the government to release the report.

If the MoJ purposefully released an altered version of the actual report, there could be legal ramifications. Whenever the ICO compels a release, it’s criminal for the compelled body to ‘alter, deface, block, erase, destroy, or conceal’ any information. The ICO clarifies the potential penalties:

There are no financial or custodial penalties for failure to provide information on request or for failure to publish information. But you could be found in contempt of court for failing to comply with a decision notice, enforcement notice, or information notice. This could lead to a fine or, in theory, jail for a senior officer of the authority.

Legal aid

Despite the government’s own findings, it tried to cut legal aid again in 2016. Following action by “hundreds of lawyers”, the government was forced to U-turn on those cuts. At the time, the Legal Action Group director said the MoJ had demonstrated “shocking incompetence” in planning further cuts.

In June 2017, the Law Society released a review [pdf] of the changes to legal aid introduced in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LAPSO). It concluded that:

1. Legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it
2. Those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access it
3. Wide gaps in provision are not being addressed
4. LASPO has had a wider and detrimental impact on the state and society

The Ministry of Justice

The Canary contacted the MoJ for a response, but did not receive one. BuzzFeed quotes an MoJ spokesperson as previously saying:

As we have repeatedly made clear, the 36-page version of the report was an early draft and clearly marked as such.

Research reports must be of the highest standard and parts of earlier drafts were deemed by researchers to be of insufficient quality.

Any request for an earlier draft would have been considered in the normal way.

They also said:

Last year we spent £1.6bn on legal aid, just over a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget – and we are conducting an evidence-based review of the changes made under LASPO which will report back later this year.

Both the draft and final versions of the report note that legal aid for Crown Court cases did not change substantially under our legal aid reforms and the number of unrepresented defendants remained broadly stable.

Featured image via Lewis Clarke – Geograph / Annika Haas – Wikimedia

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