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One in three people with legal problems in UK develop health issues – report

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The Guardian

World Justice Project survey sheds new light on troubling link between legal issues and mental illness

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Almost one-third of those with legal problems in the UK report developing a stress-related or physical illness as a result of their experience, according to a new international survey comparing people’s perceptions of justice around the world.

In the UK, 31% of respondents with a legal problem over the past two years said they had become ill, the same figure as Canada and 1% higher than in the United States. Of the 45 countries surveyed, Ethiopia came out highest in this category at 41%.

The Access to Justice survey, produced by the World Justice Project (WJP) ahead of its annual Rule of Law Index, also reveals that, of those who had experienced any kind of legal problem, one in 10 respondents from the UK suffered a relationship breakdown and nearly one in five (18%) lost their job, faced financial strain or were forced to relocate.

The research comes five years after the biggest cuts to the legal aid scheme in the UK since it was introduced after the second world war. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act removed around £600m from the legal aid budget – which stood at around £2.2bn in 2011 – by cutting entire areas of law from its scope. The legal aid budget now stands at around £1.6bn.

According to Pamela Fitzpatrick, director of Harrow Law Centre – which provides a range of free legal advice to the local west London community – the link between legal issues and mental illness is particularly troubling.

“I would say about 70% of our clients, if not more, have a mental illness ranging from depression and social anxiety through to paranoid schizophrenia; it’s a vicious circle,” Fitzpatrick said.

“In every case where I’ve represented someone at a tribunal, the person has burst into tears when they know they’ve won. It’s been such a stressful thing – and that’s with a representative.”

In October 2016, an Amnesty International report accused the government of presiding over the creation of a “two-tier justice system”. The year before Laspo came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases; the year after, it was available in only 497,000 cases – a “staggering drop” of 46%, according to Amnesty.

Fitzpatrick described one woman who came to Harrow Law Centre after failing a work capability assessment and losing her benefits. Representing herself, she had lost her case at the first-tier tribunal: “She felt like nobody believed she was ill, so she suffered from depression and started to take sleeping tablets during the day to avoid the hunger and the cold.

“This went on for 18 months until we represented her at the upper tribunal and got the judgment overturned,” Fitzpatrick said. “She ended up with £20,000 of arrears of benefits, but she was in such a state at the end of that. If she’d had good help at the start, it would never have happened.”

“If you take away support from people who need it, then it would be absurd to think this would not have consequences,” said Prof Pascoe Pleasence, of University College London. “It is troubling that Laspo has removed support for a wide range of legal problem types that we know can significantly impact on the wellbeing of those who face them. [These issues] link to public health and fuel social inequality through their interaction with other life events.”

The WJP’s survey suggests the most commonly experienced legal problem in the UK is trouble with neighbours, with one in five respondents (20%) reporting such issues. This is consistent with the English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Survey (CSJS) – regularly published since 2001 – according to Pleasence, who is one of its authors.

“Initially, policymakers thought that problems with neighbours were about somebody not cutting their hedge,” Pleasence said. “But, largely, we are talking about dense urban areas where people can really be victimised by their neighbours. Often, these problems really do impact people’s lives.”

In the 2012 CSJS, almost half of all neighbour-related problems were found to have adverse consequences involving health and wellbeing.

“So many health problems are caused by anxiety and stress when dealing with an issue that one might not recognise as a legal problem,” said Sir Henry Brooke, vice-chair of an all-party commission headed by the Labour peer Lord Willy Bach, looking into the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts.

“All the research is saying that if you tackle the causes of the potential stress and mental health issues at the start, you save a great deal in healthcare costs and the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and housing later down the track.”

According to Sean Canning, a manager at Hackney Community Law Centre, the stress being placed on its clients is unprecedented. “There is a perfect storm coming from a combination of factors: the legal aid cuts, the housing crisis, through to policies like the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. They are are all coming together – often with severe implications for the mental health of our more vulnerable clients.”

Canning reports a 40% increase in demand for the law centre’s services since 2013. “We simply don’t have the capacity to deal with everyone,” he said. “For every person who calls our advice line, we reckon there might be five more people we can’t speak to.”

The Bach commission proposed a “Right to Justice Act”, which would create a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal help without incurring costs they could not afford. According to Brooke, the commission’s “strongest message” to policymakers was for the reinstatement of early legal advice before problems started to escalate.

A 2010 Citizens Advice study estimated that for every £1 spent on housing advice, the state potentially saved £2.34, while for benefits advice, savings could amount to as much as £8.80 per pound spent.

The new WJP report – for which a representative sample of more than 1,000 people in each of 45 countries were consulted about their experiences and perceptions of justice – suggests that women are less confident in the UK justice system than men. Not only did more women (67%) experience a legal problem of any kind as compared to men (59%), but they also said they trusted the justice system less than their male counterparts.

Of those with ongoing legal problems, around two out of five (41%) women believed that they would get a fair outcome, compared to one in two men (50%). By contrast, roughly two-thirds of women in Norway (65%) and the USA (67%) felt confident that they would get a fair result.

“We are not surprised to see that women have lower trust in the legal system than men overall,” said Estelle du Boulay, director of the UK-based charity Rights of Women, which provides free legal advice to around 2,000 women per year across England and Wales. “However, we think this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a prevailing sense that the system is pitted against them on the basis of gender, for example in child contact hearings, separation processes or when reporting abuse.”

“Increasingly, we are also seeing the desperate situation that Laspo has left them in with regards to being forced to represent themselves and navigate complex processes virtually unsupported. We are also conscious of the additional barriers faced by BMER [black, minority ethnic and refugee] women due to structural discrimination and those with insecure immigration status because of the ‘hostile environment policy’, both of which lower confidence in obtaining access to justice and lead to underreporting of abuse.”

Other findings also emerge from the WJP data: 8% of UK respondents reported suffering harassment at work; one in 20 (5%) experienced difficulties related to bullying or harassment of their children at school; and one in 10 (10%) was behind on credit card payments, utility bills or loan repayments. Of those surveyed, 12% faced problems with gangs, vandalism, or the consumption of drugs or alcohol in their neighbourhood.

The WJP’s findings also suggest that nearly four out of 10 people in the UK (38%) who had exhausted all their options for taking action on a problem were dissatisfied with the outcome. This was despite the fact that over six in 10 (62%) believed that the outcome was mostly in their favour. By contrast, more than nine out of 10 people in Hong Kong (92%) and almost eight out of 10 (77%) in Denmark were satisfied with the outcome of their cases.

“When analysing satisfaction questions,” said Dr Alejandro Ponce, the WJP’s chief research officer, “it is important to bear in mind that people’s expectations will vary by socio-economic factors and across cultures.”

The Guardian

CPS or forces’ failure to disclose stopped 900 criminal cases in England and Wales going ahead

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Police forces have a “cultural problem” with disclosure of evidence, a chief constable has said, after it emerged that 900 criminal cases in England and Wales were dropped last year.

Figures obtained by the BBC under freedom of information showed charges against 916 people had been dropped in 2016-17 due to a failure to disclose evidence, up 70% from 537 in 2014-15.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said this represented 0.15% of the total number of prosecutions, but conceded that there were still “systemic disclosure issues”.

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), however, said it highlighted the need to swiftly improve and appoint disclosure champions in each force.

The investigation comes after the high-profile collapse of several rape trials, including the case against the Oxford University student Oliver Mears, which was dropped last week days before he was due to go on trial. In December, the trial of Liam Allan was halted at Croydon crown court in south London, while days later, a prosecution against Isaac Itiary at Inner London crown court collapsed.

Nick Ephgrave, the chief constable of Surrey police, the force responsible for the Mears case, and the lead on criminal justice for the NPCC, said in a blogpost: “We have had a cultural problem with disclosure, where it is too often seen by police officers as a thing to be done at the end of an investigation, becoming subsequent to, rather than integral to, the investigation. Changing this mindset is an immediate challenge for us.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday that the NPCC and CPS were about to publish a review aimed at tackling the problem.

“Training … is forming part of a very aggressive improvement plan that I’ve developed together with colleagues in the CPS, which is imminently due for publication,” he said.

Ephgrave said he was going to ask chief constables at the council on Wednesday afternoon to support the nomination of senior officers as disclosure champions in every force “so that we can really start to affect the mindset change that we need”.

But he said the increase in digital information presented “real challenges for the police service”, with the average smartphone containing the equivalent of 30,000 pages of A4 paper in information.

Angela Rafferty QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, told the BBC that barristers faced “a daily struggle in respect of disclosure, delays and all the other disastrous consequences of a system that is openly described by MPs as at breaking point”.

A CPS spokesman said: “We prosecuted more than 588,000 defendants in 2016-17 and our conviction rate was 83%. The number of unsuccessful outcomes due to disclosure issues represents 0.15% of these prosecutions.

“That is still too many, however, and we are clear that there are systemic disclosure issues across the criminal justice system, which will require a collective effort in order to bring about improvement.”

The Guardian

Regulator says UK forces failing to meet standards, with routine outsourcing of great concern

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Police forces are failing to meet the official standards for forensic science, making miscarriages of justice inevitable, the government’s forensic regulator has said.

In her annual report, Gillian Tully highlighted her growing concerns about the failure of some forensic firms used by the police to meet basic quality standards. It means innocent people could be wrongly convicted and offenders escaping justice.

The routine outsourcing of criminal forensic work to unaccredited laboratories worries Tully, with some not subject to independent oversight.

She told the Guardian that without urgent action there would inevitably be miscarriages of justice, including in cases involving murder, rape and child abuse.

“If you’re not finding indecent images of children on someone’s phone when you should be, that’s a miscarriage of justice as much as if someone was wrongly convicted of a crime,” Tully said.

The government abolished the Forensic Science Service in 2012, which was the primary provider to the police and courts, resulting in forensic work being transferred to in-house police laboratories and private providers. Conservative ministers wanted to create a market in which independent companies competed for business

But most forces appear to be behind schedule in bringing their own laboratories into line with official standards, the regulator’s latest report shows. Just a few met the October deadline to gain formal accreditation to carry out digital forensic science work.

Police are also outsourcing large volumes of digital forensic science casework – the analysis of phones, computers and CCTV – to low-cost private forensic labs without any accreditation or oversight, the report said, describing this as “unacceptable”.

“Quality standards are not a nice-to-have extra that, if we have any money left, we’ll do some quality,” said Tully. “Doing something that you can’t necessarily stand behind in court is just inappropriate at every level.”

The regulator said she would be examining whether failures to follow correct procedures in digital forensic science could have played a role in a number of high-profile rape cases that collapsed before going to trial. “I have formally requested more information on those recent cases,” she said.

She added that formal complaints had been made about the quality of digital forensic science work by some private providers, which she was also investigating.

Tully urged the government to give her office statutory powers so that she could ban substandard providers, adding that some police forces did not appear to be committed to complying with official guidelines.

“One or two police forces are dragging their heels and certainly not moving on at the rate I would expect,” she said. “I would question whether they are completely committed to gaining the necessary standards.”

Tully added: “The more pressure you put on people, the less time they have to spend on their actual work, the more you raise the risk of errors.”

In her report Tully said: “Without statutory backing for my role, a number of small and micro-businesses have chosen, for financial reasons, not to move towards gaining accreditation and those that have met the quality standards have not yet been fully rewarded through the contracting process.

“Those not moving towards compliance should be in no doubt that their services will gradually receive fewer commissions and their practitioners will face more challenges in court.”

There is a criminal investigation into claims that data at the Randox laboratory in Manchester may have been manipulated, causing the biggest recall of samples in British criminal justice history.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for forensic science, Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, said: “Chief constables are being forced to make difficult decisions about how they utilise their limited resources, but we remain completely committed to meeting the requirements of accreditation and further improving confidence in the criminal justice system.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to decide how best to deploy resources to effectively manage crime and local priorities, including forensic services. However, we are clear that cost savings must not come at the expense of a reduction in quality standards.

“We are committed to putting the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory footing with robust enforcement powers at the earliest opportunity. We are clear that organisations providing forensic services to the criminal justice system need to abide by the regulator’s code of practice.”

The Guardian

Michael Spurr accepts findings that HMP Nottingham is ‘unsafe’ and HMP Liverpool ‘appalling’

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The head of the prison service has accepted the findings of two damning inspection reports on Liverpool and Nottingham prisons but blamed the failures on government cuts and the influx of drugs into jails.

Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, said there had been a “failure of leadership at all levels” after finding Nottingham prison was “fundamentally unsafe” and describing conditions at Liverpool as “appalling”.

Michael Spurr, the chief executive of the Prison and Probation Service since 2010, promised improvements at both jails.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he accepted the findings of the reports but said they should be seen in the context of underinvestment.

Asked if he had a grip of the problems, Spurr said: “We have been managing a service that has had to deal with significant pressures over those eight years.”

The prison service has suffered a real-terms budget cut of 40% since 2010, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Spurr claimed recent decisions to reverse some of those cuts would help improve conditions. “Now the government is investing £1.3bn to modernise the prison estate. It is also investing £100m to increase staffing resources. Some of those staff are in Nottingham and over time will make a difference. Additional staff are also in Liverpool and those staff are already beginning to make a difference,” he said.

“The investment that we hadn’t had for a number of years is now in place, and with that investment we will be able to make improvement across the prison service.”

Spurr said of conditions at Liverpool, where inspectors found rats, cockroaches, damp, and leaking toilets: “There have been failings at Liverpool and some of that is about leadership. I accept that we should have taken cells that weren’t fit for use out of use much earlier than we did.”

He linked the conditions to the government’s decision to scrap plans for a new prison in the city. “Liverpool for many years has not had the investment it needed in the residential accommodation. A new prison would have relieved pressure on Liverpool. The investment for that wasn’t available – it was scrapped in 2010.”

Spurr also claimed the prison service was “robustly managing” Amey, the company contracted to clean and maintain Liverpool prison.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, urged the government to reintroduce state-run maintenance contracts.

At Nottingham, the chief inspector found the prison was “dangerous”, with eight inmates killing themselves in the past two years. He also criticised the prison service for implementing just two out of 13 recommendations made in 2015.

Spurr said: “We have not been able to reduce violence at Nottingham to the extent we would have wanted. Nottingham along with other prisons has suffered from a significant influx of psychoactive drugs that have often been supplied to prisons by organised criminals and new ways of getting those drugs into prisons that were named in the inspection report. Getting on top of those issues has proved very challenging.”

He added: “The secretary of state for justice [David Gauke] has said he will look at this urgently. We will do exactly that.”

Sharon Whitford, the mother of Marc Maltby – the fifth inmate to die at Nottingham prison within a month last October – said her son had complained of “horrible” conditions at the prison before taking his own life.

She told Today: “It wasn’t safe. When they are sent to prison it’s for their own good, to keep them out of trouble and danger. That’s obviously not been done because my son is not coming home now.”

Clarke said: “Mrs Whitford’s compelling account sums up in a tragic way why it is that I made the significant step to issue the first of these so-called urgent notifications to the secretary of state demanding a public account as to what he is going to do to put right in Nottingham the failures which are so evident during our inspection last week.”

He added: “Unless people take our recommendations seriously things aren’t going to improve. There have been failures of leadership at all levels.”

The Guardian

System of intermediaries helping to give evidence is struggling to cope, says commissioner

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Hundreds of the most vulnerable victims of crime are being prevented from testifying against their attackers because of a shortage of experts to help them give evidence, the victims’ commissioner warns in a report on Wednesday.

Helen Newlove is calling for extra support and funding for registered intermediaries (RIs) who give a voice in court to those, such as the very young or adults with learning difficulties, who have problems communicating.

Usually speech therapists, psychologists, teachers or other skilled professionals, RIs sit in courts, video-recording sessions or at police interviews alongside victims and witnesses to enable them to deliver coherent and accurate evidence.

Testimony is sometimes given by pointing at dolls or explaining by gestures what happened. There are only 183 RIs in England and Wales on a register administered by the National Crime Agency. Far fewer are active: many complain of late pay and poor working conditions.

In two extraordinary cases last year, RIs helped a two-year-old girl become the youngest person ever to testify in a British court and a former chorister, rendered immobile by motor neurone disease, was enabled to give evidence from his hospice bed using eye-tracking technology which allowed him to speak via a computer. Both cases, like many involving RIs, were sex offences.

Very young children and mentally disabled people are often targeted by offenders because they believe, wrongly, that their victims will be unable to report the abuse.

“The RI system is straining under pressure as it struggles to cope,” Lady Newlove said. “My biggest concern is you cannot expect a young child with a short memory span to wait four long weeks and still be able to recall their evidence reliably. We need a fast-track matching service for child victims.

“There are on average 250 cases every year where the police and crown prosecutors make RI requests that cannot be matched – in other words, 250 victims who are being restricted in their access to justice. This needs to be addressed urgently.”

A survey of 122 working RIs for the report, A Voice for the Voiceless, found a fourfold increase in the number of requests for assistance over recent years despite there being no increase in the number of RIs recruited.

Newlove’s first husband, Garry, was attacked by a teenage gang in August 2007, dying of his injuries two days later. Her experience afterwards in court, where her young children had to give evidence unsupported, she said, persuaded her of the need for RIs.

“If these recommendations are not acted on it will be letting the most vulnerable victims down,” she added. Access to an RI is currently a “postcode lottery”, she said.

Two RIs backed the report’s recommendations. Nicola Lewis, who used to be a solicitor before she became an RI, said: “I worked once with a child who was too nervous to speak. She would whisper into my ear the answer [to lawyers’ cross-examination questions]. I would repeat them out loud to the court.”

Esther Rumble, a speech and language therapist who is also an RI, said: “Some children will have quite limited language. Sometimes it’s like being a referee, listening carefully to each question. You may have to ask the QC, for example, to break a question down [so it can be understood].”

The commissioner is calling for a national RI service to be established and an urgent recruitment drive. Newlove said she had spoken to the new justice secretary, David Gauke, on his first day in office but was still waiting for the victims bill repeatedly promised by the government.

“When you deprive victims of the support of a RI, you rob them of the opportunity to give their best evidence,” Newlove said. “Their evidence is likely to be less effective at trial and can impede their ability to secure a conviction.”

The Independent

Rates of assault and murder decreasing in regions near Mexican border where cannabis use has been partially legalised

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In US states where marijuana can now be grown legally, the demand for illegal cannabis is falling Getty Images

The legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes has led to a significant reduction in violent crime in several US states bordering Mexico, according to new research.

The study, published in The Economic Journal, found that the rate of violent crime – including robberies, murders and aggravated assaults – fell by 12.5 per cent in counties close to the border after the introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs).

“MMLs allow people to grow and cultivate marijuana plants legally within the US,” Professor Evelina Gavrilova, one of the study’s authors, told The Independent.

“This means that people don’t need to buy illegal marijuana anymore so drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) have far fewer customers.”

DTOs have long been a major contributor to violent crime in US border states.

“Their namesake activity – the smuggling of illicit drugs – is known to be paired with extreme levels of violence, which DTOs use to contest the revenues in the drug market,” according to the study.

With these organisations now less active in the border regions due to falling demand, instances of violence have also fallen. “As revenues decrease, so does the incentive to invest in violent activity,” the paper says.

Robberies have decreased by 19 per cent in US border states which have adopted MMLs, murders by 10 per cent and assaults by nine per cent.

The biggest impact is on drug-law related murders, which have fallen by nearly 41 per cent. Countries closest to the border have seen the most significant reductions.

Eight US states have legalised the recreational use of marijuana, including California, one of four states that border Mexico. Two of the others – New Mexico and Arizona – both have MMLs.

Most illicit drugs in the US are supplied through Mexico. Every year, around six billion dollars crosses the border back to Mexico as profit for DTOs.

The market for marijuana is the largest drug market in the US and has always been a “lucrative cash crop” for DTOs, according to the study.

“It’s very likely that they are not going to simply give up on this market,” said Professor Gavrilova. “There are reports that some DTOs are starting to grow their own opium, which could be used to produce heroin that is smuggled into the US.

“They could also enter the legal marijuana trade themselves by setting up farms in a border state.”

Although MMLs do not allow for recreational use of the drug, “there can be a low threshold for prescription, depending on the state,” according to Professor Gavrilova.

This means that – even in those states without full legalisation – the consumption of marijuana is virtually decriminalised, she explained.

This accounts for the rapid fall in demand for illegal marijuana, even in states such as Arizona and New Mexico, where recreational use has not been legalised.

With their study, Professor Gavrilova and her research partners are hoping to draw attention to what they see as a highly beneficial but often-ignored consequence of legalisation.

Imran Rasul, Professor of Economics at University College London, agrees that the study usefully highlights “some important, unintended consequences of drug-related policies”.

“Policymakers tend to focus on direct impacts rather than other potential impacts,” he told The Independent.

While some of these potential impacts can be negative – house prices can sometimes fall in areas with high cannabis use – others, such as a falling crime rate, can be extremely positive, Professor Rasul explained.

Individual US states could soon lose control over marijuana policy, however. Earlier this month, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive that promised an easing of raids and other federal enforcement actions as long as states had enacted “strong and effective regulatory systems”.

Some critics believe such a move could lead to a new surge in drug-related violent crime.

“Jeff Sessions has shown a preference for allowing all commerce in marijuana to take place in the black market, which will inevitably bring the spike in violence he mistakenly attributers to marijuana itself,” Dana Rohrbacher, an Orange County Republican in the House of Representatives, said in a statement.

“He is doing the bidding of an out-of-date law enforcement establishment that wants to see a perpetual weed war”.

The move by Mr Sessions comes just a few months after a survey showed that 64 per cent of Americans were in favour of the legalisation of cannabis – the highest level of support since the survey began nearly five decades ago.

The Independent

Victim’s own experience of ‘serious harm and neglect’ leaves her without ‘foundation’ to care for infant daughter, says Judge Jessica Pemberton in recommending adoption

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A woman who was abused and raped as a child is not capable of caring for her toddler daughter, a family court judge has ruled.

Judge Jessica Pemberton said the woman, now in her early 20s, had not been given the “foundation” to enable her to look after a child.

The judge said the state had not intervened adequately to protect the woman from “serious harm and neglect” when she was a child and her upbringing had a “huge impact” on her capabilities as a parent.

Detail of the case has emerged in a written ruling published by Judge Pemberton following a private family court hearing in Sheffield.

The judge has ruled that the woman’s daughter, who is approaching her second birthday, should be placed for adoption.

She said the family involved could not be identified but said social services bosses at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council had asked her to make decisions about the little girl’s future.

Judge Pemberton said social workers had become involved with the woman’s family when she was 12.

The woman had been abused by her mother and stepfather when a child and appeared to have “endured” multiple moves between foster homes.

“(She) describes drinking heavily during weekends between the ages of 13 and 18 to such an extent that she struggled with shakes when she tried to cut down on her alcohol use,” said the judge in her ruling.

“She smoked cannabis when she was 16 and used ‘speed’ when she was partying.

“She entered into an abusive relationship when she was 14 in which she described that she was the victim of rape.”

The judge said the woman had developed “depression and eating disorders” during her teenage years and her medical note recorded a number of “self-inflicted injuries”.

“In 2013 she is recorded as frequently wishing to end her life,” said the judge.

“The review of her medical records indicates that the mother has been prescribed antidepressants at various times from 2013 to the present day.”

Judge Pemberton added: “(She) was never given the opportunity or the foundation which might have enabled her to provide adequately for her child.

“It seems that the state did not intervene adequately to protect her from the serious harm and neglect that she suffered as a child.

“She is not responsible for her upbringing but it is a relevant and significant factor that cannot be ignored. It has had a huge impact on the person that (she) is today and her capabilities as a parent.”

The Guardian

Committee chair says it is clear the current system is broken, and TUC boss says abuse is happening on ‘industrial scale’

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The government must urgently strengthen laws around sexual harassment to stop abuse continuing on “an industrial scale”, according to a coalition of MPs, union leaders and women’s groups.

Under increasing pressure to take meaningful action to tackle harassment after a deluge of scandals in Westminster and Hollywood, MPs are launching a formal inquiry into the subject.

Evidence from police, women’s groups and legal experts could pave the way for a hardening of laws and lead Britain to follow the example of countries such as Belgium and Portugal in making street harassment illegal.

The inquiry will concentrate on whether current laws around sexual harassment in public places are sufficient, and the impact of harassment on victims and society.

Maria Miller, chair of the Commons women and equalities select committee, which will lead the inquiry, told the Guardian it would push the government to disclose how it is dealing with sexual harassment, which is not currently central to its strategy on violence against women and girls.

“I think it’s clear that the current system is broken,” Miller said. “It’s all well and good to have strong laws when it comes to sexual harassment, but if we have a culture that has accepted it for decades as part of the price of being a woman then we have to change that culture [and] make sure our laws are the best they can be.”

According to a YouGov survey, 52% of women aged 18 to 24 say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, and 38% say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching. Reported sexual offences on trains and tubes have more than doubled in the past five years. Research from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project suggests half of all working women – and two-thirds of young women – have been sexually harassed at work.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said recent government policies had actively contributed to creating working conditions where abusers could thrive.

“It’s not just a case of them failing on this; they have made the situation worse,” O’Grady told the Guardian. “The government has removed protections from women and they have made it harder for women to get justice. It is about power and I don’t think women should be expected to solve this on their own.”

She pointed to the government’s decisions to introduce employment tribunal fees, scrap employers’ duty to protect workers from third-party harassment, and abolish an equality questionnaire.

The law had to be strengthened and damaging policies reversed, she said. “If the government was honest about their contribution to making this problem worse, maybe they would be in a position to think about how to put things right and ask what is going on in the world of work when we are seeing the abuse of women on an industrial scale.”

O’Grady accused the government of failing to tackle insecure work, which left workers more vulnerable to abuse. Research by ComRes for the BBC found workers on zero-hours contracts and in insecure work were more likely to receive abuse.

Hospitality workers told the Guardian that employers regularly withheld shifts if complaints about sexual harassment were made about managers or clientele. One bar worker said there was no point moving elsewhere as abuse was likely to happen in every bar. “That’s why you put up with it,” she said.

Charlotte Bence, a hospitality coordinator for Unite, said removing the duty to protect workers from third parties had “effectively allowed employers in the hospitality industry to wash their hands of the issue and given a free pass to bad customers to sexually harass workers”. She added: “Employers need to get a grip and put in place dignity at work policies. Workers can get the added protection of joining a union like Unite.”

Bence said government policies had also deliberately attempted to weaken trade union membership, which she argued gave workers “the best chance of preventing harassment in the first place”.

The women and equality committee’s inquiry is likely to consider evidence from Portugal and Belgium, where street harassment is illegal. “We are potentially a little way behind some of our neighbours in Europe in dealing with this problem in a way that gives women the confidence to report it,” said Miller.

It is also likely to call on Nottinghamshire police, which last year took the decision to record misogynistic abuse as a hate crime.

Miller said “hard questions” needed to be asked about the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in workplace sexual harassment cases. “We have to turn the worm on this. Non-disclosure agreements have become incredibly prevalent in many employment situations in a way they were never designed to, with very few rules in place.”

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said there was a desperate need for the government to face up to the problem and gather more data. “We are at a tipping-point moment where we can either retreat back into our comfort zone or we can say this is really bad for our economy and our society and we are going to end it. And that will require difficult conversations, some data and probably some legislation.”

She called for the use of NDAs to be tracked and for sexual harassment complaints to be recorded in a similar manner to maternity discrimination claims.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which is expected to publish a wide-ranging review calling for a change in the law next week, said direct action was required. “I don’t think we will get there unless we look at the law. Warm words are never going to be enough,” she said.

“We are only at the beginning of solving this problem, we are at the point of waking up to it as a society, but we are a long way from dealing with it.”

The Independent

Police Service of Northern Ireland warns method is being used to avoid security at air and sea ports

Drug dealers are increasingly using the post to send large consignments of cannabis around the UK in efforts to evade checks at ports, police have warned.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Border Force officials have recently intercepted several packages, including a parcel containing herbal cannabis worth £60,000 destined for an address in Belfast.

Detective Inspector Pete Mullan said criminals fearing security checks at borders are using standard mail services in the hope the illegal deliveries go unnoticed among millions of other parcels.

“The drugs come from the rest of the UK posted into Northern Ireland and from overseas as well, it’s a common method of dealers getting delivery of drugs,” he added.

“It’s something we are seeing more and more… I think they see it as a low-risk option.”

DI Mullan said drugs had been found hidden inside other objects, adding: “We’ve seen them packaged in children’s toys coming through the post.

“It can be put inside anything and sent in that way, it can be packaged as something else completely – numerous ways.”

Police investigations have been frustrated by dealers who move swiftly between rented properties to receive shipments.

The £60,000 package was intended for a home in Belfast, but when police raided it they found the occupant responsible had already left.

It comes as police in Northern Ireland seize increasing numbers of cannabis packages, with 4,618 seizures in the past 12 months compared to 4,375 in the year before, although the volume confiscated has fallen to 145kg from 366kg in the same period.

“People do need to think about where their money is going,” said DI Mullan warned.

“It’s not just something they are doing for themselves, it has a far wider impact on the health system, on other individuals and communities and it allows organised crime to flourish.”

Several smugglers have been caught attempting to take cannabis into the UK.

In April, a Malaysian man arriving at Edinburgh airport on a flight from Madrid was found with 10kg of cannabis with a street value of £100,000. He was later jailed for 18 months.

Possessing cannabis can be punished with up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine, while supply and production can see offenders jailed for up to 14 years.

The class B drug was lowered to class C by the Labour government between 2004 and 2009, amid persistent calls for cannabis to be legalised by campaigners.

The Guardian

Met officers failed to disclose messages between complainant and her friends – which cast doubt on the case – until the trial was about to close

crime

A judge called for a review of disclosure of evidence by the Metropolitan police. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Scotland Yard is carrying out an “urgent assessment” after a rape prosecution collapsed due to the late disclosure of evidence that undermined the case.

The trial of Liam Allan, 22, was halted at Croydon crown court on Thursday and the judge called for a review of disclosure of evidence by the Metropolitan police, as well as an inquiry at the Crown Prosecution Service, the Times reported.

Police are understood to have looked at thousands of phone messages when reviewing evidence but it was not until the prosecution was close to trial that Met officers disclosed messages between the complainant and her friends that cast doubt on the case against Allan.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it offered no evidence in the case on Thursday as it was decided “there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction”.

Speaking outside court, Allan told The Times: “I can’t explain the mental torture of the past two years. I feel betrayed by the system which I had believed would do the right thing – the system I want to work in.”

A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “We are aware of this case being dismissed from court and are carrying out an urgent assessment to establish the circumstances which led to this action being taken.

“We are working closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and keeping in close contact with the victim whilst this process takes place.”

A spokesman for the CPS said: “A charge can only be brought if a prosecutor is satisfied that both stages of the Full Code test in the Code for Crown Prosecutors are met, that is, that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and that a prosecution is required in the public interest.

“All prosecutions are kept under continuous review and prosecutors are required to take account of any change in circumstances as the case develops.

“In November 2017, the police provided more material in the case of Liam Allan. Upon a review of that material, it was decided that there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.

“Therefore we offered no evidence in the case against Liam Allan at a hearing on December 14 2017.

“We will now be conducting a management review together with the Metropolitan police to examine the way in which this case was handled.”

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