Legal aid news - February 2018

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from February 2018.

Legal aid for prisoners: On 21 February, legal aid was reinstated for 3 key areas of prison law: pre-tariff reviews, Category A reviews and challenges to decisions regarding placements in a close supervision centres.

This comes after the Howard League’s successful challenge in the Court of Appeal. The Howard League’s press release can be found here. Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director of the Howard League, said “The cuts have coincided with record high prison numbers, self-injury and suicide rates. For those of us who visit prisons week in and week out, as I do, it has never been so grim, even for children. The government has paid heed to the judgment, and we hope that it will make a positive difference. Our concern is that during the years of drought, as with other areas of legal aid, many providers have given up or lost their expertise. The Howard League has tried its best to weather the storm, at great financial cost and creating a huge burden on our staff.”

Legal aid for migrant children in care: A report published by Coram Children’s Legal Centre in early February looks at how the LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) cuts have impacted on children.

The group warns that while the UK has a strong legal framework for the protection of young people, the rights are ‘worth little more than the paper they are written on if they cannot be enforced in practice’ because most immigration issues for migrant children are now out of scope.

The report calls the LASPO cuts a false economy in that costs of approximately £10 million per year are shifted to local authorities. The report argues that, the restoration of legal aid for all migrant children in care would still result in at least an estimated £4 million annual saving.

You can read the report here. A brief summary of the report is also available in an article by Legal Voice which can be found here.

Joint Committee on Human Rights (“JCHR”) Inquiry: On 28 February, the JCHR heard evidence from the Law Centres Network, Amnesty International and Legal Action Group, in relation to their “Human Rights: Attitudes to Enforcement” inquiry. The inquiry is will consider factors which may impede individuals from using the UK’s human rights framework effectively.

Steve Hynes, Director of Legal Action Group, told the inquiry “You have legal aid in statute but in reality there aren’t enough firms providing legal aid. Many firms have withdrawn from providing legal aid as its not competitive for them. You have a market failure.” You can keep up-to-date with the inquiry, or send a written submission, here.

Criminal legal aid: On 23 February, the Criminal Bar Association (“CBA”) announced that it was forming a coalition with criminal legal aid solicitors to campaign for the restoration of properly funded 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 payment for reviewing is to be reduced from 10,000 to 6,000. The reforms are the subject of a public law challenge brought by the Law Society.

In the announcement, the CBA expressed concern about the effect the reforms will have on the junior Bar as recruitment and retention of junior criminal barrister is at an all time low. This comes at the same time as crime practitioners warned The Times that the profession is experiencing an unprecedented recruitment crisis.

Law Society campaign on Early Advice: The Law Society held a drop-in event in Parliament on 27 February 2018 as part of their ongoing campaign for legal aid to be re-introduced for early legal advice, particularly in family and housing law.  The event was well attended by MPs across all political parties, including Iain Duncan Smith, David Lammy, Bob Neill and the shadow Lord Chancellor, Richard Burgon. You can read more about the campaign here and show your support by writing to your MP here.

APPG on legal aid: The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on legal aid met on 7 February. Jenny Beck, Director of Beck Fitzgerald Lawyers and Consultants, spoke about the new domestic violence regulations which came into force on 8 January 2018. Jenny observed that there is still a long way to go to make this a system that provides truly accessible representation. For example, she said that the current focus lies on physical abuse while accessing legal aid in the case of other forms of abuse, such as financial abuse, is at the discretion of the LAA.

Chris Peace (Project Worker for LAPG) spoke about the Public Authorities Accountability Bill (the ‘Hillsborough Law’) which calls for non-means tested legal aid for families at inquests and public inquiries. For families challenging public authorities, the experience can be a ‘David and Goliath’ battle. For this reason, he argued, regardless of whether the there are merits to bring a civil claim after the conclusion of the inquest, legal aid should be available for the inquest itself.

For more information, including a summary of the talks given by Greg Powell (Managing Partner of Powell Spencer and Partners Solicitors) and Laura Janes (Legal Director of The Howard League for Penal Reform), you can read our summary here.

SQE exam: The Legal Services Board has given itself more time to approve or reject plans to overhaul the way in which solicitors qualify. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) applied to the Legal Services Board in January 2018 seeking formal approval to implement its plans to introduce the new SQE, which is due to be introduced in 2020. A final decision is now expected in March.

You can read YLAL’s response to the SRA’s consultation on the implementation of the SQE here in which 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 should make the profession more, not less, accessible.

#mypathtolaw: Matthew Channon, a law lecturer at Exeter University started #mypathtolaw to encourage lawyers from less privileged backgrounds to share their experiences. The hashtag became prevalent amongst legal aid practitioners in February. The Guardian gathered some of the most inspiring stories here.