Letters: Legal-aid lawyers

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Legal-aid lawyers are duty bound to suggest mediation to clients

Sir: You report that "Divorce lawyers 'put fees before clients' " (16 October). While the National Audit Office may well have found that in one-third of cases family lawyers failed to advise their separating or divorcing clients about the availability of mediation (I myself recall a former employer's deplorable injunction never to mention mediation to clients), the suggestion in your report that this occurs in legal-aid cases as well as privately paying ones is demonstrably false.

The Legal Services Commission will simply not grant a legal-aid certificate for most family-law cases unless mediation is first attempted or the solicitor certifies that the case should be exempted from mediation due one of a number of special factors. So, short of making a potentially career-destroying false certification, it is impossible for the legal-aid solicitor to be guilty of the sleazy practise which the NAO report suggests is being indulged in by his or her more affluent colleagues.

Legal-aid lawyers help some of the most vulnerable people in society and are so grossly underpaid for doing so that I, like many other family lawyers, have recently abandoned legal-aid work entirely. Those lawyers who remain committed to legal aid deserve respect and support.

Matthew Durman

London N19

Sir: Robert Verkaik's report could just as well have been headlined "Angry men won't mediate". The focus on solicitors' perceived unwillingness to refer people is not supported by the NAO report that came out in March this year, and I have struggled to find the "quotation" from the headline anywhere in the body of the report.

Why not pick on the cost to marginal-income couples – which lies behind the 13 per cent of cases where the "other party is unwilling to attend"? The relevant figure about solicitors not discussing mediation with clients is the 33 per cent of participants in the survey who said their solicitor did not discuss it with them.

That will have of course included the participants whose cases were unsuitable for mediation because they needed emergency representation or because of the risk of domestic abuse? Forty-two per cent of all applications fall in one of those categories. A further 13 per cent only get to a solicitor once they or their former partner has already started Court proceedings. In other words, in many cases solicitors discussed mediation even with those clients for whom it was not appropriate.

The Legal Services Commission requires solicitors to consider mediation on all occasions, and solicitors, as the comments from Resolution in their response show, are in favour of it wherever it will help.

Penny Mackinder

Family Law solicitor, Legal Aid Practitioners Group Committee Member,London NW6

Aggressive leader needed by Lib Dems

Sir: As a longstanding Lib-Dem voter, I take a somewhat jaundiced view of the line being spun by Sir Menzies Campbell and his supporters, that he has been forced out of office solely because of his age. The truth is that he has been a disaster as a leader. Over the past few years, the Conservative Party has been all but moribund, while the Labour government has staggered from crisis to crisis. Yet far from benefiting from this turmoil, the Lib-Dem position in the polls has slid back to little more than than it was under the original Liberal Party.

Under Paddy Ashdown's leadership, the party had a clearly stated intention to take back the middle ground in British politics and to aim for a Lib-Dem government. The rot that started under Charles Kennedy has accelerated since the present leadership took over. The party conferences are dominated by fatuous policy announcements of marginal importance to the general electorate. There seems to be a slide back to the old position as a party that viewed itself as far too "pure" to consider dirtying its hands with the idea of gaining power.

We need an aggressive, outspoken leader, willing to take the fight to the other parties, and a set of policies that are relevant to the country as a whole. The party needs to start making clear that there is a Lib-Dem alternative, different from the Conservatives, most of whom are still in thrall to the views of Margaret Thatcher, and a Labour Party only too willing to sacrifice the individual in favour of the interests of the state. Otherwise, and probably like many Lib-Dem voters, I will begin to wonder why I bother to vote at all. What I don't want is yet another consensus candidate whose only attraction is that he doesn't seem to offend anybody else in the party.

Neil Mander

Newton Abbot, devon

Sir: So "blaming the media for his (Campbell's) downfall is far off the mark" (Andrew Grice, 17 October)? Can we trust that your sketches and cartoons of a zimmer-frame-toting frail party leader was only your response to what you were fed by politicians?

S U Sjolin

Bury St Edmunds

Sir: Interesting that Andrew Grice should believe that the Liberal Democrats need to invigorate themselves with "distinctive policies". David Cameron seems to have had no trouble in finding distinctive policies: green tax on air travel, no to ID cards, devolve power from Westminster, perhaps Iraq wasn't so clever after all... He just stole them from the Lib Dems. The question is who but the Lib Dems has been driving the policies of all the parties? The others seem interested only in management and the politics of the weathercock.

Tim Stone


Military action by Ethiopian state

Sir: It is a well-documented fact that Ethiopia has had to take measured military action again the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front), whose record of terrorist activities against civilians over the past 10 years is well-known by those of us who live in the region ("Ethiopia's 'own Darfur' as villagers flee government-backed violence", 17 October). But the government action is in no way directed against civilians. Ethiopia scrupulously observes the cardinal principles of international humanitarian law.

Despite the ongoing atrocities committed by the ONLF, the Ethiopian government has tried to give political space to ONLF leaders and supporters who could benefit from the constitutional order, which offers room to all political actors in Ethiopia to play their role in building a vibrant democracy and in freeing Ethiopia from poverty.

Suffice to refer to the ongoing development programmes in the region – infrastructure building, rehabilitation and construction of social services, such as schools and clinics, which have improved the livelihood of the people of the region. The population of the Somali region of Ethiopia have their representatives in the federal parliament and enjoy full regional autonomy to manage their own political and economic affairs.

The UN mission that was given the responsibility to investigate the situation in the region identified humanitarian elements that should be addressed as a matter of priority by the Ethiopian government. The government should be congratulated for promptly implementing the measures it has taken to address all the issues raised by genuine partners.

As to the domestic political process, The Independent seems to be unaware of the ongoing steps taken to build a sustainable democratic system in Ethiopia (devolution of power, codes of conduct for parliament, civil service reform, reform of the National Electoral Board, the establishment of ombudsman and human rights commission offices, a draft democratic press law) which are all crucial to the efficient functioning of democracy.

Berhanu Kebede

Ambassador,Embassy of Ethiopia,London SW7

Sir: The £130m that Britain gives the Ethiopian government every year is a clear indication of favoured status.

Apart from recent developments in Ogaden, which like other areas outside the Amharic-Tigrinya heartland has at best suffered neglect from successive regimes in Addis Ababa, there are two further reasons why British support for the current Ethiopian regime is morally questionable.

First, the US-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces last December, which toppled the Islamic Courts regime. The article mentions this, but not the longed-for stability that the Islamic Courts brought to Mogadishu and the surrounding area, and the fact that instability has returned with their fall. Evidence for the Islamic Courts' links to al-Qa'ida and extremist Islamist tendencies has never been forthcoming.

Second, Meles's refusal to agree to the demarcation of the border with Eritrea, decided upon by an independent arbitration committee whose decision he agreed to respect. This is bad for the people of Ethiopia, but even worse for the people of Eritrea. Eritrea, a country of 4.5 million people which gets next to no aid, has an army of 350,000 soldiers on constant alert, resulting in malnutrition and despair among its population and an ongoing excuse for Eritrea's tyrant, Isaias Aferwerki, to violate human rights and suspend implementation of a progressive constitution.

If Britain threatened to withhold aid to Meles's government, the result would be that both countries would find it harder to resist moves towards genuine democracy, and would have a good deal more money to spend on the health and education of their populations.

Stephen Pratt


The BBC is betrayed by its management

Sir: The way in which the BBC has decided to meet its budget deficit by cutting into news and current affairs broadcasting proves only the ineptitude of the director general and his management team (report, 20 October).

Ironically, while the licence-fee shortfall provided the rationale for the cuts, the way in which they have been implemented makes the case for doing away with tax-payer funding altogether.

The Reithian values of public-service broadcasting have been thrown out of the window when the management can seek to make cuts to the £5m budget of the Today programme while taking nothing from Jonathan Ross. What of the £93m budget devoted for the tiny audience that watch BBC3: why not use the money on news and current affairs instead? It is the BBC management and Trust who should be losing their jobs over this, not the journalists.

Paul Donovan

London E11

The Iraq war is not so easily forgotten

Sir: Thank God for Adrian Hamilton (Opinion, 18 October). There is not and never should be any readiness to forgive and forget the Iraq invasion – neither by the public nor the media nor the politicians whose hands are stained by this crime against humanity. Brown should not be allowed to pretend he differed from Blair one iota – just read Robin Cook's memoirs on his stand in Cabinet.

Nor should Cameron or Liam Fox be allowed by the likes of Sean O'Grady (9 October) to make capital of the charge that Brown has been playing politics with the troops. The most extreme way of playing politics with "our boys" is to vote for them to be committed to an illegal war – Fox and Cameron insult our intelligence if they think we can forget their votes.

Richard Heron

Wantage, Oxfordshire

Torture is ineffective and utterly wrong

Sir: Joan Bakewell debates the use of torture to extract "crucial" information from detainees (19 October). The evidence shows it does not work, as tortured people will say anything to get the torturers to stop.

Those who follow Bush's line in maintaining such practices as not only justifiable but also necessary condemn our own armed forces to greater dangers. If "our" side can use torture, then we can not be surprised if "their" side uses it too. To avoid such a scenario the UK has a legal prohibition of torture under the Human Rights Act and under International Treaty. Both are absolute, and in our best interests. Torture is always immoral and uncivilised, ineffective and counterproductive.

Mark Krantz



Greatest film endings

Sir: What? A list of the greatest endings in cinema history (Arts & Books Review, 19 October) that doesn't include the enigmatic much-discussed last scene of Kubrick's 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey?

M G Sherlock

colwyn Bay, North Wales

In praise of local food

Sir: It was good to read the article on Andrew Thornton's shop in Crouch End (18 October). The Women's Institute has always been passionate about sustainable communities and local food issues. This year we launched our Living Local initiative to encourage community groups to work with suppliers and retailers to raise awareness of the benefits of local food and to increase local sourcing by shops. Everybody gains: shoppers get fresh food at reasonable prices, food miles are reduced, and the economic stability of our communities is improved.

Fay Mansell

Chair, National Federation of Women's Institutes,Usk, monmothshire

Greed destroying planet

Sir: America is ploughing up the last remnants of the Great Plains grasslands to produce fuel for SUVs ("Victims of the ethanol rush", 19 October); old-growth forest in Canada is cut down for tissues and toilet paper; the ancient forest of Tasmania is being turned into woodchips for Japanese paper manufacturers. If supposedly advanced western democracies continue to promote such greedy and reckless behaviour, what hope is there of persuading weak or corrupt states like Brazil and Indonesia to adopt more rational and responsible policies towards their forests?

Alan MacColl

Hermitage, Berkshire

Watson's ideas

Sir: To paraphrase an old saying, intelligence is as intelligence does (James Watson, Opinion, 19 October). The allegedly superior intellects of the white races have given us most of the dangers suffered by mankind at present, from aggressive imperial interventions to religious bigotry, chemical pollution and climate change. Even a highly intelligent white scientist can abuse "the powers of reason" and contribute to human misery.

Susan Tomes

London SW19

Drink: know your limits

Sir: So a glass of red wine each evening now makes you a boozer in the leafy suburbs (report, 17 October). I prefer to heed the health warning displayed in Paris metro carriages in the post-war years: a rosy-cheeked cartoon workman glugging a bottle of the stuff, with the caption: "Jamais plus de deux litres par jour!".

Robert Short