Legal aid news - December 2016

Happy new year, and welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from the festive period.

LASPO review: the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, reportedly hinted that the government may be preparing to begin the long-called for and promised review of the legal aid cuts implemented by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 ('LASPO'). During justice questions in the House of Commons, Truss said: “We have already announced a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 – we will shortly be announcing the timetable – but we need a system that is both open and affordable, which is exactly what the government are delivering.”

Amnesty report on legal aid cuts: following the publication of Cuts That Hurt, a report on the impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice and human rights protection, Amnesty International UK's Law & Human Rights Programme Director, Rachel Logan, wrote for openJustice that legal aid cuts are a major human rights issue. The article concludes as follows: “Legal aid has always been the guarantee of equal access to the law, of rights that are meaningful and effective. It's well past time for the government to fulfil the promise it made to review the impact of these reforms. With every day that passes, the structural damage to access to justice increases, and we risk passing the point of no return.”

We are delighted that Rachel Logan will be joining us at our meeting in London on Wednesday 11 January 2017 to speak about
Cuts That Hurt and Amnesty's work campaigning for access to justice and human rights. The meeting will be held at Garden Court Chambers from 6:30pm. You can read a summary of Cuts That Hurt by YLAL member Emma Fitzsimons here.

Labour legal aid review: Geoffrey Bindman wrote for openJustice about the interim report by the Bach Commission on Access to Justice to argue that “the steady erosion of legal aid, both as to financial eligibility and the scope of the scheme, has severely undermined the principle of universal access to justice”. Bindman considers that the interim report is “unduly tentative in not advocating reversal of the LASPO cuts, or expanding the legal aid budget. A promise to 'make access to justice a reality' cannot be made good without increased funding”.

YLAL co-chair Ollie wrote about the Bach Commission interim report for The Justice Gap and HuffPost UK after it was published in November 2016. We asked our members to email their MPs to call on them to commit to supporting legal aid and access to justice following the report – if you have not done so already, please do email your MP and forward any response you receive to us at ylalinfo@gmail.com. We have prepared a draft text which you can use on our website here.

Justice in free fall: Legal Action Group released a new report, Justice in freefall, analysing the latest legal aid statistics from the Ministry of Justice and recommending immediate commencement of the LASPO review, reinvestment of the civil legal aid budget underspend in an innovation fund and a public information campaign about what problems legal aid is available for. The full report is available here, and you can read a summary on Legal Voice here.

Immigration detention: a report by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), covered by The Independent, found that half of immigration detainees have no representation because of legal aid cuts. BID's Policy and Research Manager, John Hopgood, said: “The situation described by detainees underlines the bleak situation people being held in immigration detention face – made pointlessly and unjustly worse by the government's ill-conceived cuts to legal aid.”

Legal aid advice deserts: the Law Society Gazette reported on evidence of further legal aid advice deserts for housing and debt services, after the Legal Aid Agency issued two invitations for firms to express interest in providing housing and debt advice in Calderdale and Warrington & Halton.

Homelessness: Shelter and Legal Action Group warned that thousands of people have been made homeless due to a shortage of legal aid lawyers, after the annual number of households in privately rented accommodation being forcibly removed reached an all-time high of 42,728 last year while at the same time there was an 18% decline in the number of challenges brought.

Pro bono: the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, suggested that law graduates could help plug the widening access to justice gap by representing litigants in person in court proceedings under an expanded pro bono advice scheme. Read the report by the Law Society Gazette here.

Human Rights Day: on 10 December 2016, internationally recognised as Human Rights Day in commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, we joined the British Institute for Human Rights and over 160 organisations in calling on the Prime Minister to drop the government's plan to 'scrap' the Human Rights Act. You can read the open letter to the Prime Minister, which was published in The Times, here.

Other news: the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Francis FitzGibbon QC, took The Times' legal newsletter The Brief to task for claims that criminal and family legal aid lawyers' wages have “rocketed” in recent years, as reported by Legal Cheek. And finally, the Law Society Gazette reported that “mystery surrounds the activities of an advisory council set up by Michael Gove while Lord Chancellor to examine abuses in the legal aid system.” The Ministry of Justice confirmed that the council, chaired by Gary Bell QC, is still in operation, but the Gazette received no response from Bell after seeking an update on the status of the panel.