Valuable research, or statement of the bleeding obvious?

Last week I read about lots of ‘new’ research that has discovered consumers are mystified by the legal world and are still put off lawyers by jargon, hidden costs, antiquated opening hours and poor customer service.  Well knock me down with a feather.

The world is full of useless research.  I am constantly amazed and slightly depressed at how some of our, apparently, best brains are preoccupied by why woodpeckers don’t get headaches or what makes a cookie crumble.  Research has also revealed that teenagers who play computer games read less and do less homework, we all feel better at the weekend and, amazingly, performance-enhancing drugs enhance performance.  Not so much research, more statement of the bleeding obvious.

Still, it is the job of academics to conduct research and I guess not all of them can cure cancer or explain how we can improve social mobility.  There is also always the chance that in doing something seemingly pointless some bright spark will make an important discovery.  On the other hand, market research is quite often written off as worthless, and it quite often is, not least because it is rarely about listening to the customer but as a justification for doing something an organisation was going to do anyway.   And you don’t have to be a master of the dark arts of PR to know most statistics, if not ‘damn lies’, are certainly selective truths.

I say this as one who has, and sometimes still does, throw research statistics around with gay abandon.  There is nothing more comforting than being able to validate your opinion with a few choice, carefully presented and meticulously gathered figures; no self-discerning press release should be without them.  But let’s not get carried away with their significance.  As the saying goes, statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

None of this is to suggest that robust research, properly analysed and used genuinely to inform policy, isn’t valuable.  In an area like the law, where some people will inevitably have to use a lawyer even if they don’t want to, it has been an important tool in attempting to persuade the profession that things have to change.  Some, thank goodness, have even taken notice, recognising its in their own interest now other, more customer-focused businesses, can also deliver legal services.

But honestly, did the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) really need 18 months to find out what people want from their lawyer?  It doesn’t take a genius, or even a market-research professional, to work out that ‘often this amounts to getting the right information, in the right format, at the right time’.

I am sure, at least I hope I am sure, that the SRA found out some slightly more nuanced information, particularly from disadvantaged or hard-to-reach groups of consumers.  All the same, 18 months spent talking to people is 18 months not actually doing very much and the SRA’s had about five years to find out what customers want, although it could have just asked the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

And what is the outcome of all this ‘research’?  A website to help consumers know what they need to know and when they need to know it.  I am sure it will be a very good website, I am particularly looking forward to the ‘surveys, polls and quizzes’ it promises, but websites only go so far, and it won’t solve consumers’ confusion about legal services unless the root cause is tackled more robustly, ie the propensity of lawyers to confuse their clients in the first place.

A further indication of how far the SRA may still have to go were concerns expressed by board members that the website should not become a comparison site, a sort of TripAdvisor for legal services.  This is exactly what it should be so that consumers cannot only get the information they need about lawyers but find a suitable one.  Rather than preventing user comments and feedback on its own site, the SRA should be worried about the simplistic comparison sites that are inevitably springing up all over the web.  Social media and the Internet are fundamentally changing consumer behaviour and expectations and it simply isn’t an option to carry on as you were.

As well as changing the way consumers research and purchase products and services, social media is having a radical impact on traditional market research.  As consumers find there are easier, more immediate and more responsive ways to talk to organisations they will be less willing to take part in structured surveys.

Arguably, the sort of feedback and data gleaned this way will also be more valuable as it will be ‘in real time’ rather than ‘after the event’ when individuals may rationalise previous actions.  In any case, behavioural experts now suggest there is no reliable link between attitudes and behaviours, which somewhat invalidates most traditional market research.  If the SRA really wants to know what consumers think it will have to embrace genuine interaction.

To be fair, the regulator wasn’t the only organisation trumpeting research of dubious value last week.  QualitySolicitors’ own research found that while lawyers ‘tend to be excellent’ at the technical bits of their job they often put people off because of their expense, jargon and lengthy response times.  Strangely their response is to launch a new advertising campaign persuading the public to ‘love their lawyer’.  Well, you can try anything once.

Advertisements

The Partnership Problem

I thought I would re-post this after reading “The Last Days of Big Law” in New Republic

It has long been apparent to anyone with an ounce of business sense that, by and large, partnerships are not the best way to run a company.  There are, naturally, exceptions and I am not going to take issue with the profitability of the ‘magic circle’ firms that would be eligible for inclusion in the FTSE100 were they to have publicly traded shares.  They have all said, however, they would not seek to float.  There are probably many reasons for this, most of which I couldn’t hope to understand.  But I bet one of them is because the partners of those firms rather like being partners in those firms.

The disappointing level of social mobility in the legal sector, particularly acute I would imagine in the largest firms, isn’t entirely down to the bias towards recruiting trainees who attended private schools and who could get work experience via their parents.  No, I am quite sure that the partnership model itself is the source for many of the legal sector’s woes.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty crazy idea really.  For a start, partnerships hardly encourage decisiveness.  Having worked in a law firm, I can attest that getting anything done was a bit like herding cats (and I make no apologies for linking to this YouTube video again because it makes me laugh).  Trying to get everyone to agree is a slow and painful process for which you don’t get much in the way of thanks.  Not really the environment for making cutting edge, dynamic business decisions.

Equally as problematic is the route to becoming a partner.  To reach these hallowed heights, young lawyers have to toil away, often for long hours, somehow meeting very high standards while doing mostly mundane tasks for however long it takes until they are given the nod.  It’s hardly surprising then that the average age of an equity partner (the ‘owners’ of a law firm) is now 60.  With one eye on securing their safe passage to retirement, these people are, naturally risk averse, and, if my experience is anything to go by, some of the most conservative and change-resistant people on the planet.

By promising jam tomorrow, law firms attempt to elicit unwavering devotion from their junior lawyers.  Aside from being, in many cases, an empty promise (as the Red Queens says: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today’) this is no way to promote the innovation and entrepreneurship that enables a company to leapfrog its competitors.  The short termism partnership encourages also gives rise to the ever-present danger, as Labour politician Tony Benn put it, that ‘some of the jam we thought was for tomorrow, we’ve already eaten’.

While I am yet to work in any organisation, legal or otherwise, that doesn’t struggle with a silo mentality at least some of the time, I am quite convinced that partnership exacerbates these tendencies.  Lawyers feel compelled to protect their territories and keep their contacts to themselves; knowledge is, after all, power.  And so you can end up with the absurd situation of grown, mostly men, bickering over issues like children.

The model is just as useless when it comes to ensuring an equal gender balance at the top of the profession.  While women make up 60% of the trainee intake at the big city law firms only about 18% of their partners are female.  Given the track record of the city more generally in getting women into the boardroom, it may be unfair to lay this charge entirely at the partnership door.  However, the collegiate nature of running a business is a rather effective way of excluding women.

Social events geared towards traditionally male pastimes, like golf, are a very subtle, even unconscious, way of demoralising any woman who might harbour ambitions of partnership.  The firm I worked for did not, of course, exclude women deliberately, but every corporate jolly, sorry networking opportunity, that came up, bar awards dinners, involved football, cricket or golf.  I know plenty of women who might enjoy these activities, but not necessarily if they have to go along with a lot of testosterone-charged males.

The problem is that firms can, and do, talk the talk when it comes to promoting diversity but many at the top still secretly believe, even if they won’t admit it, that to get the rewards you have to put the hours in and play the game.  Not to do so amounts to ‘career suicide’.  Which probably explains why efforts to grow the numbers of female equity partners at the UK’s largest firms are failing.

Just as damning, as I have written before, venerating partnership above all else also consigns many in the firm to a ‘citizenship’ that is distinctly second class.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of such a system in the past, it is patently a stupid way to run a modern company.  I can’t see any circumstance in which effectively disenfranchising whole swathes of your staff makes business sense.

And law firms need those other people.  While there are clearly some lawyers who have the skills to become business leaders, it is a fallacy of the partnership model that just because you’re a good lawyer you can lead a law firm.  Those that think they can prove me wrong, well you’ve been doing it in the good times, that was easy.  Surviving in a harsh economic climate is going to require real management and leadership talent.

So thank god the legal profession, and with it the partnership model, is being well and truly shaken up.  Already law firms at the high street end of the market are beginning the feel the effects.  What is extraordinary, given the overwhelming unsuitability of the partnership model for anything other than self-preservation, is that the top city firms still seem to think the shake up has nothing to do with them.  They should remember no firm is too big to fail.

Originally posted on the Quality Solicitors blog in February 2012

Twenty-three years is a long time to wait for justice

Twenty-three years is a long time. You should be able to get a lot done like, I don’t know, invent new things, build cities, go to Mars and back, grow up. There aren’t many things that actually take 23 years, unless someone in your family died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. Then you’ll find it takes 23 years to get the truth.

This isn’t strictly true. Those campaigning for the truth of what happened that awful day have known all along that their loved ones didn’t die because of drunk football hooligans without tickets storming into the ground and causing a devastating crush against the barriers, even though that’s what the police, the press and even the government were saying.

They have, however, had to wait 23 years to learn the full extent of the conspiracy after the event by the police and the ambulance service to exonerate their own roles in the disaster and, with the collusion of the press, place the blame firmly at the feet of the fans. As if 96 preventable deaths and 23 years of lies weren’t tragedy enough, we are again reminded that agents of the state do not always act in the best interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

An independent report into the events at Hillsborough published today has found that South Yorkshire Police and the ambulance service made ‘strenuous attempts to deflect blame’ for the deaths of the 96 Liverpool supporters. This was not just a subtle spinning of the facts, but a concerted attempt to besmirch the reputations of the dead and those who had survived.

Why else would the police carry out criminal record checks on the deceased, or test the blood of all of them, even the children, for alcohol? Why else would they doctor 116 of the 164 police statements to remove unfavourable comments? Why else fabricate ‘despicable untruths’ about the behaviour of fans, including that they stole from the dead and dying and urinated on the police?

If the fact of the police cover up is not news, at least not to the families of the victims, the scale of it revealed by the report is more damning and shameful than anything most of us would have feared. Equally depressing is to learn, for the first time, of the inadequacy of the response by the ambulance service to the disaster. It failed to implement its major incident plan, only one ambulance made it to the pitch and only 14 victims were taken to hospital.

The report also raised ‘profound concerns about the conduct and appropriateness of the inquests’ into the deaths, in particular the decision to rule that all 96 victims died in the same way (which sounds unlikely to anyone with an ounce of common sense). It also criticised the decision to impose a 3.15pm cut-off time on the inquest, when evidence shows that a number of the dead survived ‘for a significant period’ after this.

In his apology to the victims’ families, the prime minister acknowledged the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and their ‘indefensible wait to get to the truth’. Waiting 23 years for an apology must be something of a record (and it’s worth remembering that without the dogged persistence of Andy Burnham MP they might still be waiting) but the catalogue of errors and downright lies now exposed is not enough. The families still want justice.

Justice would surely include a new public inquiry setting out not only what happened in the stadium but exactly what happened afterwards. The government is under no legal obligation to do so, but given the evidence now uncovered, it would be difficult for them to resist.

The families also want to see the inquest finding of accidental death overturned to be replaced by a verdict of unlawful killing. For this to happen, the Attorney General has to persuade the high court it is in the public interest to quash the original inquest and order another because new facts or evidence have come to light.

It is scandalous that no-one has ever been found guilty for the failings that led to the tragedy. Shockingly, even though the original 1989 Taylor inquiry found the reason for the disaster was a failure of police crowd control, the director of public prosecutions decided not to bring criminal charges against any individual or organisation on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

With 450,000 previously unseen documents, there must now be sufficient information to prosecute the police officers who lied and tampered with evidence and the police commander, who retired on medical grounds before he could be disciplined, but later admitted, during a failed private prosecution, that he had lied about the cause of the disaster.

I expect the newspapers guilty of perpetuating the narrative of drunk, filthy, criminal football fans causing the disaster are going to have to do a lot more than issue front page apologies. It may not be possible to libel the dead, at least not yet, but they didn’t only sully the reputations of people who had died just for going to watch their team play football, they prolonged the agony of their families.

It would be easy to think, because this all happened 23 years ago when policing was more like Ashes to Ashes than Law & Order UK, it couldn’t happen again. But if we haven’t yet quite come to expect police misreporting of the facts, we shouldn’t be surprised by it: witness the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson and the family of Mark Duggan, still waiting for answers about the police shooting that caused his death in August last year.

However much policing has changed, it is impossible not to conclude that there is still a dangerous culture of secrecy pervading some parts of it. Perhaps even more unacceptable is that, despite varying degrees of evidence to the contrary, for 23 years governments and large segments of the press have been content to accept and peddle the story of Hillsborough as concocted by the police.

If it took the rest of us 23 years to grasp the truth of something, we’d be branded incompetent and out on ear in no time. If it had happened in another country, we’d accuse it of being a police state and point fingers at its inept justice system and unaccountable politicians. It is not acceptable that it happened here and we can but hope it never happens again.

Posted in: campaigns, Justice system
Tagged: Hillsborough, police

Secret courts – not in my name

Today the Justice & Security Bill enabling ‘secret courts’ passed through the House of Commons.  I wrote this about the bill last May.  Sadly it still holds true.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Spooks as much as the next person, although I lost interest once the characters played by Rupert Penry Jones and Hermione Norris were bumped off. Along with most people, I have no illusions as to how accurate a portrayal it represented of the security services. Most amusing was the idea that there were only about a dozen spies at most, all highly swashbuckling, protecting us.

Nobody thinks there are spies much like James Bond either, but I suppose most people would generally assume that our spies at least are the good guys and reasonably successful in doing their jobs. And there’s the rub. Mostly we have no idea what they are up to, which is why the government’s proposals for secret courts are so worrying.

I wrote not that long ago about why these plans undermine the principle of open and equitable justice and why we should oppose them. Secret courts have no place in an open and democratic society and apparently the justice secretary Ken Clarke has finally been swayed by the Daily Mail’s campaign against the proposals.

Or perhaps not. The much-trumpeted climbdown, most notably on the proposal that public inquests might be held in secret, is really nothing of the sort, if you take as your starting point the principle that all institutions must submit to the rule of law. Instead, this bill means that the intelligence services can insulate themselves from legal challenge and press scrutiny.

That is not to say we shouldn’t welcome the concessions, limited though they might be, although, as with any government u-turn, it is always worth remembering what Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, calls the ‘oldest parliamentary trick’ where you start with ‘a policy so outrageous that any crumb of comfort looks half reasonable’.

The other crumb offered by Clarke has been to decide that a judge, not a minister, will make the final decision on whether proceedings should go into close session.  It’s difficult to see, however, how the proposals, which remove judges’ public interest immunity discretion, are anything other than a whitewash.

In reality, this ‘concession’ is a nonsense.  Under the bill, a judge ‘must’ agree to a secretary of state’s demand for secret hearings if the disclosure of information ‘would be damaging to the interests of national security’.  This, says Clarke, is a much narrower criterion than ‘the public interest’.  It may well be, but the problem remains, who defines what is in the interests of ‘national security’. The judges? The government? The spies?

One key opponent to the proposals, Liberal Democrat peer and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, told the Today programme that ‘judges pay a high degree of deference to ministers in the area of national security’. Judges themselves agree. As Lord Kerr of the Supreme Court said in al-Rawi, the leading case on secret hearings in civil claims, ‘evidence which has been insulated from challenge may positively mislead’.

I don’t know about you, but I want to know what is being done, in my name, to protect ‘national security’. I want to know if my government has been complicit in the torture of detainees overseas or has allowed their rendition back to brutal regimes where their lives are in danger.

I am quite sure the Intelligence and Security Committee doesn’t provide the accountability it’s supposed to.  But that’s hardly surprising when it is appointed by the prime minister, has its reports vetted by him and probably only sees what MI5, MI6 and the government want it to see. The committee probably knows this, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

Ken Clarke claims there will, in fact, be more justice under these proposals because the only alternative is silence.  This sounds pretty unlikely to me.  Much more likely is that he wants to protect ministers against civil damages claims, like those from Guantánamo Bay detainees ‘to whom we paid a lot of money recently because we could not put the evidence up against them’.

Lord Macdonald suggests the government has failed to come up with any concrete examples where this has happened.  More to the point, it doesn’t make it any more like fair justice if the case goes ahead in secret and is decided on evidence that one of the parties can’t even see.

It is worth citing the case of Khadidja al-Saadi who was rendered at the age of twelve by the UK to Gaddafi’s Libya. Her family are taking the British Secret Services to court for conspiracy to torture after failing to get either an apology or an explanation for their ordeal. Even with Ken Clarke’s ‘concessions, her case will be held in secret, so we’ll never know the truth.

On hearing about the plans, Khadidja al-Saadi said they sounded

‘a lot like the trial that Col. Gaddafi used to sentence my father to death. In that case, my dad told me, a man came from behind a panel and whispered intelligence in the judge’s ear. My father had no opportunity to respond and had no idea what was said. [He was] sentenced to die. I say ‘sentenced’ but it was no trial. It was a joke. Is this really what Britain wants to do with my case?’

And this, ultimately, is the point. I don’t want my justice system to be compared with that of a raving, maniacal and badly-dressed despot. I don’t want our spies, however noble and just they might be, running around unchecked. And I don’t want ministers to act as judge and jury, deciding what I can and can’t know about what they are doing in my name, because it isn’t always good and it’s not always pretty.

Is self representation the legal equivalent of a DIY appendectomy?

Would you rather represent yourself in court or perform your own appendectomy? It sounds like a fairly straightforward question and at first thought, and quite possibly second and third thoughts as well, most of us would plump for representing ourselves in court: there is, arguably, less blood, less pain and less chance of death.

But I have been musing on the question since reading about Ramírez Pérez, a Mexican woman who delivered her own child by caesarean section.  The mother of seven, who lived in a tiny rural community in Mexico eight hours from the nearest hospital, decided after 12 hours of severe labour pains that rather than risk losing her baby she would operate on herself.  Remarkably both she and the child survived.

Not something I imagine many women will be including in their birth plans.  Unsurprisingly, Ramírez is believed to be the only woman to have performed a successful caesarean on herself, although it’s quite possible some of us would do the same if we found ourselves in her situation.

Ramírez obviously felt she had no choice, or only a choice between her DIY operation and death, which isn’t much of a choice. This is likely to be true for anyone else who finds they have to wield the knife on themselves: the mountaineer who cuts off an arm to escape a rock fall or the scientist stuck in the Antarctic who needs a biopsy (although there is a strange category of people who seem to do it for fun).

It is unlikely that many people represent themselves in court for the fun of it.  Nobody knows your body better than you, and all you have to face when cutting yourself open is pain and a lot of cleaning up afterwards.  In court you have to face people, in comedy wigs and gowns, for whom the rules and regulations are second nature and who argue for a living using a strange language the rest of us don’t understand.

You might think, therefore, that the only people who would represent themselves in court would be those oddballs who ‘love a challenge’, who want to put one over on the establishment, who have nothing better to do, or who are just a tiny bit crazy.

Not any more.  Where once people would no more represent themselves than they would drill a hole in their own head, now anyone can find themselves having to navigate the arcane world of the court system because they have no choice.

This alarming rise of litigants in person is set to increase and everyone from the Lord Chief Justice down is starting to worry about the impact this will have on the justice system.  Everyone, it seems, apart from the government.

In the last five years there has been a 61 per cent rise in the number of reported high court and tax tribunal cases involving unrepresented litigants.  The recession has had a huge negative impact on people’s personal finances, meaning more may end up in court but unable to afford a lawyer.  From April 2013, when the legal aid cuts come into force, this is only going to get worse.

There will no longer be any financial support for most cases involving divorce, child custody, medical negligence, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefits and education.  According to the government’s own figures, 623,000 people could lose out on advice.  A number of law centres are already closing, but the £20m transition fund set up to support them looks somewhat paltry.  All of which might be ok if it were really going to save £350m, but it isn’t.

When I needed a caesarean for the birth of my daughter it took minutes, seconds even.  It took Ramírez an hour to perform one on herself and she needed further surgery to repair complications.  Likewise, a case prepared by a lawyer who knows what they are doing is likely to reach, and conclude, a final hearing much more quickly the than one handled by someone who didn’t even know where the court was until last week.

The government says the evidence does not show that these cases ‘necessarily take longer’.  I find this hard to believe.  Self-represented litigants are not going to have had any legal advice to help work out the merits or demerits of their case.  They are not going to know what is relevant and what is not, nor what they have to produce or when they have to produce it.

The government says ‘judges are already well used to dealing with litigants in person’, but this upsurge in cases that need significantly more support is going to descend on a court system that is already noticeably creaking following drastic staffing cuts.

The government says its reforms will encourage people to tackle their problems earlier and in other ways rather than resorting immediately to legal action.  But by pulling the rug out from under people, what they’ll get is more people who get no justice at all, either because they haven’t had any legal advice or because they will just give up.

You don’t even have to use your imagination to see what this deluge of DIY justice will look like.  US courts are flooded with poorer people representing themselves and judges say they are slowing down court dockets because they don’t know what legal points to argue or what motions to file.

According to America’s largest funder of civil legal aid for the poor, less than 20 per cent of the legal needs of low-income people are addressed with the help of a private or legal aid lawyer.  Its chairman says ‘courthouses are being filled with people just showing up, trying to figure out what their rights are’.  In some states the numbers of litigants in person in child custody and divorces cases is around 80 per cent and rising.  Millions of dollars has been spent on educating and supporting them.

A former aviation director who represented himself in court, Peter Elliot, told the Law Gazette he was ‘utterly frightened’ and intimidated when he first walked into Manchester high court four years ago and had no clue what he was doing.  ‘It was like being in a game of chess where you don’t know where any of the pieces can go but your opponent knows it all’.

Even so, I’m guessing Mr Elliot’s background had better prepared him for the challenge than many of the vulnerable people who will find themselves in the same situation come April next year.  Against this, cutting your own foot off starts to look like the easy option.

Lessons about justice from the trial of Oscar Pistorius

I was one of those lucky enough to be in the Olympic stadium on 8 September last year to watch Oscar Pistorius win his emotional gold medal in the 400m. Well, it wasn’t entirely luck, I had applied for tickets for that session precisely because I wanted to see him race. It was an incredibly stirring event and one that banished memories of his unseemly tantrum the week before, which I’d also been there to see.Image

Just as it was not a surprise that the way in which Pistorius won, and accepted, this gold medal provided redemption, it should not have been a surprise that our hero wasn’t, in fact, the icon we held him to be, but a normal person just like the rest of us. All the same, finding out someone can be ruthless and ungracious does not mean it is not shocking to learn he’s shot and killed his girlfriend.

And despite all the details about loud arguments, bloody cricket bats, whether or not the athlete took time to put on his prosthetics and where the victim, Reeva Steenkamp, was sitting when she was shot, this is all we really know. It is, I would suggest, all we really should know, given the alleged crime took place less than a week ago and hasn’t yet even come to trial.

As the Twittersphere and rolling news whip themselves up into a frenzy of speculation, claims and counter claims are increasingly masquerading as facts. The case, understandably, is being compared to that of OJ Simpson in 1994. But if Simpson’s trial was a circus, today’s proliferation of social media renders Pistorius’ more like a deranged bacchanal in which the participants try to outdo each other by sharing ever more salacious details that confirm their own already-decided verdict on his guilt or innocence.

It differs from Simpson’s trial in another key respect, there will be no jury. This is why both the South African and international media have been able to unearth stories apparently proving Pistorius’ unhealthy relationship with guns and previous violent behaviour. Even though South Africa has similar contempt laws to ours, they are rarely enforced because the judges who deliver verdicts are considered above influence.

South Africa abolished its jury system in 1969 because of racial politics. Only white people could be jurors and black defendants had no hope of getting a fair trial. It is surely debatable as to whether Pistorius can get a fair trial, even if the verdict comes from an unswayable judge who has to provide reasons for his decision. It must also be possible that some of this sensational coverage might be straying dangerously close to libel.

Before we get all high and mighty about the wonders of the jury system, let’s remember many people think the OJ Simpson jury got it wrong and our contempt laws are under strain from the challenges posed by social media. Between 1998 and 2005, the Court of Appeal ordered only four investigations into ‘juror misbehaviour’, but from 2006 to the middle of last year ‘at least 27 investigations’ were ordered.

The internet makes it all too easy for overenthusiastic jurors to do a little background research in between court sessions. It is equally challenging to prevent prejudicial information being published on the web. A consultation on proposals to reform our contempt laws has suggested there could be a new oath not to undertake research and tougher penalties for jurors who go a little ‘off piste’.

However, none of this will help without better education about the justice system. Only today, the jury at the trial of Vicky Pryce was dismissed after asking the judge ten specific questions about the case, including the definition of ‘reasonable doubt’ and whether a jurors could ‘come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence’. for failing to reach a verdict. The judge concluded they were ‘highly unlikely’ to reach a verdict.

If some commentators found it exasperating that jurors could be so baffled by the trial process, I can only wonder that this doesn’t happen more often. Maybe it does, we have no way of knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of jury deliberation and whether jurors have done their job properly, even if we believe most of them do.

Part of the fascination we have with high profile cases overseas, be it OJ Simpson, Amanda Knox or Oscar Pistorius, is, I think, as much about another country’s different way of dispensing justice as it is interest in the human story. We were baffled by the televised courtroom and superstar lawyers in Los Angeles, confounded by the inconclusiveness of Italian justice and now puzzled by the workings of a South African system that seems almost to sanction trial by media.

My fascination is compounded by my long affection for South Africa, which I first visited in 1976 when I was only four years old. It is a savagely beautiful country and I have always been struck by the warmth of its people despite its difficult past and troubled present. These same people will no doubt feel somewhat uncomfortable at this most recent spotlight being thrown on their country, in particular the violent undercurrent it brings into sharp relief and that all too frequently forces its way to the surface.

Despite fairly strong gun laws, 6 million people, 12 per cent of the population, own a gun and anyone who can locks themselves away in gated communities. On average a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by a partner or relative. In a country where the poor are unlikely to be able to afford a lawyer and spend about two years in custody before coming to trial, it is perhaps the probable relative swiftness of Pistorius’ trial, and his highly paid lawyers, that will be most the most unusual aspect of this case.

Oscar Pistorius is already being seen as an analogy for a country that overcame tragedy, promised much and then fell gracelessly off its pedestal. His trial, and its outcome, will dictate whether or not he can redeem himself again. It may also have a tiny part to play in whether his country can also start to redeem itself.

What do you call a job without pay or employment rights?

Being forced to work in Poundland may not be very nice, but equating it with modern-day slavery is probably exaggerating. On the other hand, it’s quite reprehensible for an apparently reputable and successful business to employ people to do jobs that need doing and not pay them anything at all, even if the government has asked them to. It’s exploitation, even if the Court of Appeal couldn’t say so.

Cait Reilly’s claim that requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store was unlawful succeeded on a fairly technical basis and not on a finding that this was slavery under human rights law.  The court was quite clear that it had no principled objection to the Back to Work scheme but that it and other work-for-your-benefit schemes were unlawful because of the lack of basic information given to the unemployed.

In fact, Ms Reilly’s assertion that stacking shelves and sweeping floors were akin to slave labour was roundly rejected by a senior judge last year, making suggestions that the judgement was a damning indictment of the government’s work schemes certainly misplaced.  Anyway, ministers will just come up with new, lawful, regulations.

What is less obvious is whether these revisions will do anything to ensure schemes are ‘designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment’.  Ms Reilly, a university graduate, had to give up her voluntary work in a local museum to stack shelves and clean floors under a scheme laughably called ‘the sector-based work academy’.  Quite what she was learning is unclear.

Her co-claimant, a qualified mechanic, was told he had to work unpaid cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months under a different scheme known as the ‘community action programme’.  God only knows how that was supposed to help him find meaningful work or how forcing skilled workers to do menial jobs will help boost the economy.

To be honest, I am struggling to see how any of the government’s policies in relation to people’s rights around benefits or employment are going to help the economy.  And they seem to be at odds with recent pronouncements that we must start training our toddlers for work so as to keep up with the top-performing Asian countries – you don’t need a great deal of training to sweep floors or clean furniture (unless it’s antique).

Equally baffling is the government’s continuous trumpeting of the jobs figures that apparently show more people in work than ever before.  Not only do their figures include about 200,000 people on government training and back-to-work schemes (so not actually employed at all) but last week we learned that there are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008.

I’m one of them, and while I am relishing the freelance life it has some significant drawbacks compared with being employed.  I have no job security, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no employer pension contribution (actually, at the moment no contribution at all), but it’s almost impossible to get a part-time job and it has a major advantage over a full-time one:  it allows me to be a proper mum (no offence meant to mum’s that do work full time).

The general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, must surely be right when she says

‘There may be perfectly good reasons for being self-employed, but it would be naïve to think that all these workers are really budding entrepreneurs.

‘These figures instead suggest that many employee roles are being replaced by self-employed positions.  Bogus self-employment is bad news for staff as they miss out on vital rights at work, such as paid holidays and employer pension contributions, without having the advantage of being their own boss’.

Still, that’s probably what the government wants, believing, I imagine, it will enable businesses to grow and create more (second-rate) jobs.  Amazingly, not all businesses agree, even the small ones, three quarters of whom gave a ‘withering response’ to George Osborne’s idea of allowing staff to trade their employment rights for shares.

Quite reasonably, a majority of small firms with annual sales of more than £1m felt the proposal would damage people’s trust in business by weakening staff rights or creating the wrong impression of entrepreneurs.  And it’s not just because they think administering such a share scheme would be a nightmare, or because what they really need is long-term shareholders focused on creating wealth, but because it would end up rewarding bad employers.

I’m fairly sure this won’t stop the chancellor going ahead with it.  O’Grady also believes the government has even set its sights on the employment rights guaranteed by social Europe that it currently can’t touch: such as health and safety protection, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, paid holidays, a voice at work and protection when a business is sold off.  A licence for bad employers if ever there was one.

Wanting to have a decent job, one with fair pay for a day’s work, fair treatment and a bit of job satisfaction is not unreasonable, even if it isn’t exactly a human right.  Standing up for this does not make someone a scrounger or workshy, it simply means they want something better for themselves.  I fail to see why the government disagrees.