Legal aid news - December 2017

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

Legal aid for victims of domestic violence: On 7 December 2017 the justice minister, Dominic Raab,  laid a Statutory Instrument before Parliament to amend the eligibility requirements for legal aid for victims of domestic violence. Our press release can be read here.

Previously, legal aid was available to victims of domestic violence and child abuse, or those deemed at risk, as long as they could provide evidence of abuse within the past two years. Under the new rules, the controversial five-year limit has been removed and new forms of acceptable evidence have been introduced, including from social services, medical professionals and domestic violence support organisations.

This comes after Rights of Women successfully challenged the lawfulness of the previous rules in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal found that the Regulations were unlawful as they required ‘verifications of domestic violence to be given within a 24-month period before any application for legal aid’ and because they did ‘not cater for victims of domestic violence who have suffered from financial abuse’. Following the Court of Appeal judgment, the Ministry of Justice allowed evidence of abuse from within the past five years, rather than two.

Estelle du Boulay, Director of Rights of Women, told the Guardian “The previous system was so clearly unjust, leaving many genuine survivors unable to access the legal aid they were entitled to, because the evidence requirements were narrow, onerous and unrealistic. We fought the government through the courts to bring in these reforms. We are particularly grateful to the many women survivors who provided testimony that enabled us to prove our case. Their voices have finally been listened to today.”

Criminal legal aid cuts: On 12 December 2017, the Law Society announced that they had launched a judicial review challenging the further cuts to criminal legal aid. Under the new rules, which came into force on 24 October 2017, payments will be slashed for paper-heavy Crown Court cases. The number of pages of prosecution evidence served on a Defendant that their lawyers will be able to claim against is to be reduced from 10,000 to 6,000.

In their press release, President Joe Egan said “We believe this will have a dramatic effect on criminal legal aid solicitors and barristers who are already barely scraping a living as they try to ensure a fundamental part of our justice system is upheld - that anyone, regardless of means, is entitled to a proper defence when accused of a crime. What this means is that the defence in complex trials will be hit by a substantial cut. We believe this is unlawful, and that’s why we’re taking the government to the High Court.”

A pre-action protocol letter was served on the Ministry of Justice on 12 December. Any judicial review challenge will have to be issued in the High Court by 24 January 2018 at the latest.

LASPO review: Bob Neill, Chairman of the Justice Select Committee, wrote to David Lidington on 19 December urging the government to the carry out the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 with regard to the rule of law, equality and the cost/benefit of early legal advice. The letter can be read in full here.

Proposed reforms to qualifying as a solicitor: On 20 December 2017, YLAL responded to the latest consultation by the SRA on its plans to introduce a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The consultation, 'Looking to the future: phase two of our Handbook reforms', concerns a number of issues, including the introduction of the SQE and the streamlining of the SRA’s current character and suitability requirements for solicitors.

In our response to the consultation, we urge the SRA to ensure that the new system does not impose any additional financial burden onto our members as they work to qualify and that any reforms will make the profession more, not less, accessible.

Bach Commission report: The Bach commission report, “The Right to Justice” was debated in the House of Lords on 14 December 2017. You can watch the debate here.

Lord Bach summarised the findings of the report. In relation to the removal of scope of a number of areas of law, Lord Bach said “taking [areas of law] out of scope gives rise to the belief that often those with least have least access to justice.” He also highlighted the benefit of early legal help, both in “financial and human terms.” Both of these points were supported by Lord Faulks, a Conservative party peer.

Lord Bach went on to explain the need for a “Right to Justice.” He stated “it isn’t right to put this burden wholly on judiciary and government has to be shocked out of the complacent attitude that it takes towards this issue.”

The points raised by Lord Bach received cross party support from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. However, some concerns were raised about cost by Lord Faulks.