Legal aid news - August 2017

Welcome to our summer update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from July and August 2017.

Employment tribunal fees: in a landmark judgment for the rule of law, access to justice and workers’ rights, the Supreme Court held that the employment tribunal fees imposed by the Coalition government in 2013 were unlawful. Unison, the trade union which brought the case, hailed the judgment as “a major victory for employees everywhere” following its four year fight to overturn the fees, which had resulted in an almost 70% reduction in the number of employment tribunal cases brought by workers.

The unanimous judgment by the Supreme Court emphasised the importance of the rule of law and, in particular, the constitutional right of access to the courts which is inherent in the rule of law. The full judgment and a press summary are available on the Supreme Court website, and you can read reports of the case by the BBC, the Law Society Gazette, RightsInfo, Counsel magazine, the Financial Times (by David Allen Green), openJustice (by Geoffrey Bindman) and the Guardian. Unison’s press release responding to the judgment is here. Meanwhile, the Mirror took the opportunity to list Chris Grayling’s failures as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (the list does not even include the residence test, which was also ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court).

Charlie Gard and Paul Briggs: the availability of legal aid for families in cases concerning the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical treatment was in the news as a result of the cases of Charlie Gard and Paul Briggs. The High Court judge in the case of Charlie Gard, Mr Justice Francis, said that Parliament cannot have intended for legal aid not to be available in such cases: “However, it does seem to me that when Parliament changed the law in relation to legal aid and significantly restricted the availability of legal aid, yet continued to make legal aid available in care cases where the state is seeking orders against parents, it cannot have intended that parents in the position that these parents have been in should have no access to legal advice or representation.”

The full judgment is available here, and the quote above is from paragraph 17. You can read reports on the case and the judge’s comments about legal aid in the Law Society Gazette, The Sun and The Mirror. The Ministry of Justice stated that no application for legal aid was received from Charlie Gard’s parents, as reported by Legal Voice – although if they were financially ineligible for legal aid (as has been suggested), clearly there would have been no point in making an application. The case of Paul Briggs in the Court of Protection raised similar issues about the availability of legal aid in cases concerning the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, as reported by ITV and the Court of Protection Handbook.

YLAL released a statement following the Charlie Gard case, calling on the government to review the financial means tests for legal aid as part of its review of LASPO, and consider whether legal aid for families in cases concerning the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment should be non-means tested (in our Twitter poll on this subject, 75% of respondents agreed that non-means tested legal aid should be provided in such cases). We believe the government must ensure that legal aid is not reserved only for the very poorest and most vulnerable in society, but rather is available to anyone who is unable to pay for legal advice and representation. Our statement was reported by Solicitors Journal.

Children’s Society report and petition: the Children’s Society released its report on the impact of excluding separated and migrant children from legal aid, concluding that the supposed safety net for the most vulnerable children, Exceptional Case Funding, is not working, and calling on the government to reinstate legal aid for unaccompanied and separated migrant children in immigration cases. The Children’s Society has also set up a petition to reinstate legal aid for unaccompanied migrant children, which you can read and sign here.

Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards: YLAL helped to celebrate the vital work that legal aid lawyers do across the country at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) Awards, which took place on 5 July in London. You can read about the evening and all of the winners in the Law Society Gazette and Legal Cheek, and on the Legal Aid Practitioners Group website. The compere, Anna Jones, gave YLAL a special mention when discussing the nomination of our committee member, Heather Thomas, in the family public category, saying that YLAL “specialises in attracting – or perhaps creating – exceptional lawyers”. You can catch up on all of the tweets from the night by checking out #LALY17.

Lord Neuberger on access to justice: the outgoing president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, warned that society will fragment without access to justice, in a speech to the Australian Bar Association reported by Legal Voice and the Law Society Gazette. Lord Neuberger said: “Access to justice is a practical, not a hypothetical, requirement. And if it does not exist, society will eventually start to fragment. It is a fragmentation which arises when people lose faith in the legal system: they then lose faith in the rule of law, and that really does undermine society.” He argued that “it verges on the hypocritical for governments to bestow rights on citizens while doing very little to ensure that those rights are enforceable.” Hear, hear. You can read the full speech by Lord Neuberger on the Supreme Court website.

Meanwhile, in July it was also announced that Lord Neuberger’s successor as president of the Supreme Court will be Lady Hale, who will take up the role from 2 October 2017. At the same time, the number of women sitting as Justices of the Supreme Court will double, with the appointment of Lady Justice Black as one of three new Justices.

Interview with the Lord Chancellor: Joshua Rozenberg interviewed the new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, for Law in Action, with a write-up featured in the Law Society Gazette. Rozenberg reports that the Lord Chancellor “had little reassurance for hard-pressed legal aid practitioners”; despite confirming that the government review of LASPO will continue, Lidington argued that at the time of the cuts in 2012 there was “a need to reduce the overall legal aid bill in this country”.

APPG on Legal Aid: the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid, co-ordinated by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and YLAL, had its first meeting of the new parliament on 12 July. Both the Law Society Gazette and Legal Voice reported on the meeting, which covered the response by lawyers to the Grenfell Tower disaster, the government’s latest legal aid statistics and fee cuts to criminal legal aid. The formal minutes of the APPG meeting are available here, and you can read our report of the meeting – prepared by YLAL member Tom Hoeksma – here. You can also read about North Kensington Law Centre and the lawyers seeking justice for Grenfell in this article by Jon Robins for The Guardian.

Proof magazine: the new issue of Proof magazine, Life in the justice gap: Why legal aid matters, was published in July. The magazine is a collaboration between The Justice Gap and the Justice Alliance, and features stories from the frontline of legal aid, a conversation between Helena Kennedy QC and Martha Spurrier, and an article by YLAL on our latest research on access to the legal profession, ahead of our forthcoming report on social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector. You can read an excerpt from Rachel Logan’s article for Proof about Amnesty International’s research on the impact of legal aid cuts here.

Young legal aid life: the latest instalment in our ongoing series of ‘day in the life’ articles for Legal Voice was published in July, with YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter providing an insight into his work as a public law and human rights solicitor at Irwin Mitchell. You can also read about Irzum Mahmood’s experience as a Justice First Fellow at Govan Law Centre on Legal Voice. (The new round of Justice First Fellowships is open right now – see our Jobs & Opportunities page and the Legal Education Foundation website for details, and you can also read about the new Fellowship opportunities in the Law Society Gazette.)

Pro bono levy: Greater Manchester Law Centre set up this petition calling on the new mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, to fund pro bono and charitable legal services by introducing a levy on Manchester’s corporate legal sector. The campaign was featured in reports by Solicitors Journal and the Law Society Gazette. Meanwhile, Ian Browne wrote for Legal Voice about his research trip to study the pro bono landscape in the United States and consider whether there are any lessons for the UK.

Other news: Steve Hynes, the director of Legal Action Group, wrote for the New Law Journal about access to justice policy following the 2017 general election, arguing that no other public service has suffered the same level of cuts under austerity as civil legal aid and enough is enough. Chris Minnoch of Legal Aid Practitioners Group tried to answer the question “what’s eating legal aid lawyers?” for Legal Voice, including the promised review of LASPO, potential cuts to fees for criminal legal aid and the ongoing decline in the number of legal aid providers.

The Secret Barrister’s excellent blogpost on why even the worst people in society should receive legal aid was re-posted by inews, and finally, YLAL committee member Lucie Boase wrote this fascinating piece for Solicitors Journal about her time interning in the New Orleans Public Defenders Office.