Legal Aid News: August 2020

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from August 2020.

 

HoC Justice Committee Report: Published 3rd August, the report examined the practical impact of COVID-19 between 16 March and 30 June alongside the legal professions’ financial difficulties and support received from the Government. Whilst noting that legal professions adapted “impressively quickly” to working from home and remote justice hearings, the Committee did highlight that “legally aided services, that were already under significant financial strain following many years of reductions to legal aid budgets, are under great pressure”. They continued by warning that “some barristers, solicitors, and law centres may collapse” as a result of the pandemic. The report also identified critical equality issues, as explained by Law Society President Simon Davis – “young practitioners and those from BAME backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic as they often work in publicly funded areas of law”. Chair of the Committee, Sir Bob Neill, commented that “people are under the misapprehension they [legal professionals] are all on comfortable incomes. Some are, but very many, especially given their recent big drop in workload, are not”. The committee also urged the Ministry of Justice to consider the Bar Council’s proposals to bring new barristers and practitioners within the remit of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. They also recommended consideration of further grants alongside the Law Society’s proposals for payment and repayment of monthly payments to solicitors firms and not-for-profit providers. Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC said he is working “very hard… to see what more can be done to help the flow of regular income to the professions, particularly those at the sharp end of legal aid”.

 

#APrayerForLegalAid update as Lord Chancellor announces that new fixed fees for immigration legal aid work are unlawful and will be revoked: Concerns were raised last month regarding access to justice under these new regulations, which set a fixed fee of £627 for remuneration of legal aid providers for asylum and immigration appeals. Following the noise made by YLAL’s campaign, the Lord Chancellor has revoked the new regulations. Alongside political pressure, legal proceedings were issued by Duncan Lewis and Fountain Solicitors before the Lord Chancellor accepted that consultation had been inadequate before the regulations had been brought in – this comes in the same month that the Government announced an independent review on judicial review. Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor David Lammy MP commented that “this is a hugely important U-turn” and a “victory for access to justice”. The Ministry of Justice have now promised a full consultation on immigration fee reform before plans are finalised next year.

 

Fear for housing legal aid under fixed recoverable costs regime: According to Professor Dominic Regan, the government remains “mad keen” on imposing fixed costs on most civil claims valued up to £100,000, inclusive of counsel’s fees. Serdar Celebi of Islington Law Centre explained that such limits would be “devastating” for legal aid, as “many if not all housing providers would likely have to close”, as “recovery of inter partes costs from opponents… is the only way housing legal aid as an area is sustainable” given the stagnation in legal aid rates since 1996 and a ten percent cut in 2011. 

 

Lord Chancellor announces investment and independent review for criminal legal aid funding: Alongside the Government’s consultation response, the Lord Chancellor announced injections of “an additional £35m to £51m per year into criminal legal aid”, whilst proceeding with nearly all proposals set out in the consultation. Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar Council, commented that funding announcements are “a welcome, first step”, noting that the response “is an acknowledgement by the Government that the current rates of pay for defence advocates and solicitors are far too low to maintain a functioning criminal justice system”. The Lord Chancellor also announced “an independently-led review that will be ambitious and far reaching in scope, assessing the criminal legal aid system in its entirety”, to launch later this year. Whilst welcoming the review, Law Society President Simon Davis remarked that “it should not be the paymaster who dictates whether what they pay is sustainable”. Please read YLAL’s response to the announcements here.

 

Housing possession proceedings suspension extended until 20th September: On 21st August, two days before the ban on evictions was due to be lifted, Robert Jenrick MP (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) announced that it was to continue for another four weeks. A requirement that landlords provide tenants with six (as opposed to three) months’ notice until at least the end of March 2021, apart from where serious issues such as anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse perpetrators, was also announced. The latter, more serious cases will be prioritised once eviction hearings restart. Giles Peaker, a housing solicitor at Anthony Gold Solicitors, commented on the last-minute nature of the decision, voicing his hope that “this had really better be to buy time for [a] longer-term legislative solution”. In light of Shelter’s estimate that 227,000 private renters have fallen into arrears since the start of the pandemic, Law Society President Simon Davis called for more to be done, “including resolving the legal aid deserts currently preventing tenants in some areas from receiving legal advice and making wider legislative changes to prevent a spike in homelessness”. 

 

Thinktank recommends “inquests and inquiries should be responsive to needs of bereaved people and survivors”: JUSTICE’s latest report, ‘When things go wrong: the response of the justice system’, provides 54 recommendations – one being non-means tested legal aid for inquests where the state is represented. For information on the other recommendations please read this article. Sir Robert Owen, Chair of the Working Party, commented that the recommendations were given to ensure responsiveness to bereaved people and survivors, with the view that “system cannot provide justice if its processes exacerbate the grief and trauma of its participants”. 

 

Home Office accuses ‘activist lawyers’ of frustrating attempts to deport immigrants from the UK: In a clip tweeted on 26th August, the Home Office accused “activist lawyers” of abusing the current system to prevent people being returned to mainland Europe, as current return regulations are “rigid and open to abuse allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns”. This comes during a month where the issue of immigration has been prevalent in the mainstream media. The tweet prompted a massive backlash from the legal sector, causing #ActivistLawyer to trend on Twitter. One of many to respond was The Secret Barrister, who tweeted that “the government wouldn’t keep finding itself frustrated by enemy of the people judges and activist lawyers if it just stopped breaking the law”. Meanwhile, the Law Society branded the Home Office tweet as “misleading and dangerous”, with President Simon Davis saying that “attacks on the integrity of the legal profession undermine the rule of law”. The clip was removed by the evening of 27th August, with Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft promising that it will not be used again. 

 

We are very grateful to YLAL member Charlotte Green for this month's update. If you would like to contribue to YLAL's legal aid news updates, email ylalinfo@gmail.com