Legal aid news - June 2017

Welcome to a bumper edition of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from May and June 2017.

The general election: after the unexpected result of the general election, there’s a new team at the Ministry of Justice, with David Lidington replacing Liz Truss as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, and Dominic Raab taking on the role of Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid vacated by Oliver Heald. It remains to be seen whether the outcome of the election will have an impact on legal aid policy, but you can read about what the political parties said about legal aid in their election manifestos in this article for The Justice Gap by YLAL co-chair Ollie and this blog post by Legal Aid Handbook.

You can also read about our pre-election debate on access to justice, featuring lawyer-politician representatives of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, on our website and on The Justice Gap. For early thoughts on the new Lord Chancellor, you can read profiles by The Secret Barrister and RightsInfo, and Joshua Rozenberg’s account of his recent interview with David Lidington. Catherine Baksi also wrote this article for Legal Voice about lawyers’ calls for more funding for legal aid after the government found the magic money tree for its £1.5bn deal with the DUP.

Law Society LASPO Report: the Law Society published its report on the consequences of legal aid cuts made by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The report concludes: (1) legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it; (2) those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access it; (3) wide gaps in provision are not being addressed; and (4) LASPO has had a wider and detrimental impact on the state and society. The report includes a number of recommendations and a call for the government to commit to and continue the post-implementation review of LASPO which was announced earlier this year. You can read the full report on the Law Society website here. The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, has also said the country has a “serious problem” with access to justice and that society will fragment without access to justice, as reported by Legal Voice.

Grenfell Tower: in the wake of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington, it was reported that residents had tried to get legal advice over their safety concerns before the fire, but were unable to obtain advice due to legal aid cuts. However, some housing law specialists said it was in fact a gap in the law – rather than cuts to legal aid – which prevented residents of Grenfell Tower from obtaining redress for their safety concerns before the disaster struck.

Liz Davies of Garden Court Chambers wrote for The Guardian about the cuts to legal aid for housing law and the possible causes of action available to residents before the fire. She concluded: “even with legal aid provision broad enough to fund a careful consideration of legal remedies, it is possible that, because the law governing housing standards is so ineffective and insufficient, housing advisers would have advised that there was no effective challenge”.

North Kensington Law Centre has been coordinating efforts to ensure survivors and families can access legal advice following the fire – you can donate to support their efforts here.

Criminal legal aid: Robin Murray and Julian Berg wrote for The Justice Gap with proposals for radical reform of criminal legal aid. Meanwhile, the official forensic science regulator called for additional legal aid funding to help with the increasingly complex digital evidence used in criminal prosecutions, as reported by The Guardian. Meanwhile, the Law Society recently advised criminal legal aid lawyers that they may refuse work if it threatens the financial viability of their firm.

Financial eligibility: before the election, the government consulted on changes to the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid arising from changes to the welfare benefits system, in particular the introduction of Universal Credit to replace several means-tested benefits. YLAL’s response to the consultation is here – you will see that we endorse the response by Public Law Project and call on the government to review the financial means tests to ensure that legal aid is not reserved for only the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Birmingham pub bombings inquest: it was confirmed that the families of eight of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings have been granted legal aid for representation by their Northern Ireland-based solicitors. However, it later emerged that the lawyers acting for the families would not receive any backdated payments beyond February this year, and the consequence of this was that the families would not be represented by a QC at an important pre-inquest hearing.

Becoming a legal aid lawyer: Chambers Student published this very informative and detailed post about working as a legal aid lawyer featuring comments by Francis FitzGibbon QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, and YLAL member Mary-Rachel McCabe, as well as by YLAL. Speaking of becoming a legal aid lawyer, you can read YLAL member Sami Halpern’s account of his Justice First Fellowship at Islington Law Centre on Legal Voice. Joanna Bennett of Hodge Jones & Allen also wrote for The Lawyer about the skills you need to work in legal aid.

Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards: the annual award ceremony for lawyers carrying out publicly-funded work, the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) Awards, will take place on 5 July. We are delighted that YLAL committee member Heather Thomas has been nominated in the ‘Family Public’ category – good luck Heather! You can read about all of the nominees on Legal Voice here.

Pro bono: Jon Black of BSB Solicitors argued on Legal Voice that the profession should not be promoting pro bono schemes, but should instead lobby the government for a levy on city firms to fund legal aid. James Sandbach then responded, asserting that pro bono is something the profession should celebrate and promote, and said that “the idea of an inherent conflict between pro bono and legal aid is profoundly wrong”. Diane Astin subsequently argued for a ‘third way’ focussed on the needs of clients as the starting point.

CCMS: the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) for civil legal aid was the subject of a recent survey of legal aid lawyers by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG). Chris Minnoch wrote this excellent article for Legal Voice about the results of the survey, including the finding that 81% of respondents said completing legal aid applications on CCMS takes longer than using the old paper-based system. LAPG has provided the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) with the data from its survey and has asked to meet to discuss the issues.

Public Law Project recently reported that the LAA has agreed to reconsider its guidance on the time allowed to make applications on CCMS, which currently states that the basic time standard for completing an application for legal aid is 30 minutes – meaning providers will usually only be paid for this amount of time. Our highly scientific Twitter poll on this subject found that 91% of respondents said it takes over 30 minutes to complete an application, with 71% saying it takes over an hour.

Other news: Patrick Page, a legal aid caseworker specialising in immigration and asylum at Duncan Lewis, wrote for The Guardian about the “silent scandal” of how asylum seekers are treated in the UK. Sir Henry Brooke blogged about his recent visit to Hackney Law Centre and legal aid for housing law, and Michael Mansfield reflected for Legal Voice on how access to justice has been “denigrated and downgraded”.

Finally, YLAL committee member and ‘Monmouth woman’ Lucie Boase and her trip to work with Amicus in New Orleans featured in the Monmouthshire Beacon – go Lucie!