Legal aid news: December 2018

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

BBC investigation into legal aid cuts: On 10 December, the BBC published the findings of their investigation into legal aid cuts since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’). The investigation found that the cuts have created deserts of provision across England and Wales. In some areas, up to a million people have no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million living in areas with only one provider.

Since 2011-2012, it found:

  • Around a million fewer claims for legal aid are processed each year
  • More than 1,000 fewer legal aid providers were paid for civil legal aid work than in 2011-2012
  • Almost half of all community care legal aid providers are based in London

Richard Miller, Head of Justice at the Law Society, said provision of legal advice across England and Wales was disappearing, creating legal aid deserts. He said, ‘even for those cases where legal aid is still supposed to be available, it can be very difficult for a client to find a lawyer willing to take on the case.’

Nicola Mackintosh QC, community care lawyer and sole principal of Mackintosh Law, told the BBC ‘we see people more desperate and in more extremely need than they were five years ago, and there is nowhere to send them. Those people are invisible to the system.’

LASPO review delayed: On 13 December, the government announced that the publication of its long-awaited review of the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’) has been delayed (again) until early 2019. The Ministry of Justice says this further delay is due to the wide-ranging nature of the review and the number of stakeholders that have submitted evidence.

Criminal legal aid: On 10 December, the government announced that it will conduct a ‘fundamental review’ of criminal legal aid payment schemes, which includes considering criminal legal aid throughout the ‘life cycle’ of a criminal case.

Justice minister Lucy Frazer said, ‘Starting in January, we will work with you the criminal defence professional, to gather the necessary evidence as part of this robust and wide-ranging review. The contribution of the leadership and wider profession to the AGFS has been invaluable thus far and I look forward to building on this close cooperation.’

Legal aid for benefits challenges: On 6 December Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, announced that a Labour government would restore legal aid for people seeking advice to appeal against cuts to benefits. Burgon argued that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice.

Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout. Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

This announcement comes after the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”.

Minimum pupillage award increased: On 6 December, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) announced that the rate for the minimum pupillage award will increase from 1 September 2019 from £12,000 per annum to £18,436 per annum in London and £15,728 for pupillages outside London, both of which are in line with the rates recommended by the Living Wage Foundation. The minimum award will be increased in future with effect from 1 January each year.

A BSB spokesperson said: "Linking the minimum amount that pupil barristers must be paid to the Living Wage Foundation's recommendations is just one of the changes we are making to make Bar training more accessible, affordable and flexible while maintaining high standards. Two thirds of chambers already ensure that their pupils receive more than the minimum award we are setting, but we will keep the impact under careful review particularly in relation to the number of pupillages available."

Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): The dean of Durham law school, Thom Brooks, called on law firms to publicly challenge the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) over its plans to introduce a centralised solicitor super-exam, “before it is too late”. Writing in The Times on 17 December, Brooks claims that despite meeting with law firms of various sizes, he is yet to find a partner is in favour of the SQE. He said “Multiple-choice exams are easier and less costly to assess for large groups, but not the most effective way of discerning ability. Potential is better captured through a diversity of assessments. Putting all eggs in a single basket gives an advantage to the students who need it least.”