Legal aid news: May 2020

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from May 2020.

Legal aid funding during Covid-19: On 4 May 2020, the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) announced new government funding of £5.4 million to support the legal advice sector during the pandemic. Law Centres have seen an increase in demand for advice on social welfare issues, so this funding is aimed at mitigating the increase in costs of providing remote services.

Justice Minister, Alex Chalk, recognised the importance of access to justice at this time, saying “Law Centres and charities in the advice sector play a vital role in helping people access justice and resolve their legal problems. That is why they should be supported to continue to operate safely and effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Helen Rogers, chair of trustees of the Law Centres Network commented that “the pandemic’s uneven impact is a grim reminder of the deep inequality in our society that affects every aspect of life. This support recognises the key role of legal assistance in reducing inequality and bringing justice for all.”

While this funding has been widely well-received, it has also faced some criticism from professionals who are concerned about the survival of legal aid firms. Law Society president Simon Davis hoped that “similar investment will be made across all other areas of the justice system under duress.” Bar Council Chair Amanda Pinto QC stressed that many self-employed barristers in particular will not be eligible for the government funding, which could have a serious impact on the long-term sustainability of the profession.

This funding comes in addition to the recently signed grant for £3.1 million to support litigants in person, as well as a pledge of £85,000 from city firms including DLA Piper and Mishcon de Reya. Without emergency funding, several law centres would have closed within four to eight weeks due to a lack of funding.

The official MoJ publication can be found here.

 

Challenging NRPF Policy: This month the High Court ruled that the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) policy introduced in 2012 breaches Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment). The claim was brought by an 8-year-old boy and his mother, who experienced extreme poverty and periods of street homelessness resulting from a lack of access to any of the child and housing benefits that low-earning parents depend on. The case was supported by charities, The Unity Project and Project 17.

More details of this case can be found here and here. A detailed judgement and order are due and will detail steps that the Home Office must take following the ruling. However, it is clear from the oral judgement that this will only affect cases where a person “is not currently destitute but will imminently become so without access to public funds” and will not change the policy “in the normal run of cases.”

 

YLAL on Immigration Detention and Refugee Rights: On 7 May, YLAL held a virtual event on the topic of immigration detention and refugee rights during Covid-19 – a full video of the event can be viewed here. Topics discussed include Covid-19 risks to immigration detainees, asylum applicants’ right to work, and the severe financial disadvantages asylum seekers face.

 

Fixed fees for asylum and immigration legal work: On 18 May, the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 was published. These set out fixed fees for immigration and asylum legal aid work, but according to the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) “the majority of files will exceed the new fixed fee and will therefore lose out financially as a result of this change.”

This will inevitably lead to complex and time-consuming cases becoming undesirable for firms to take on and will limit access to justice for those who are most in need of legal assistance by affecting the willingness of quality firms to take on legal aid cases.

The fee adjustment will only apply from 8 June 2020 to 8 June 2021; however, the damage that this will cause could have disastrous long-term effects on the legal sector as legal aid firms may not be able to maintain a practice in that time. More details can be found here.

Duncan Lewis Solicitors has published a document challenging the amendments made, saying that “[the Amendment Regulations] are ultra vires of LASPO as they constitute a disproportionate restriction on the right of access to justice.”

YLAL member and Garden North pupil barrister Christian Weaver created a YouTube video explaining the issue with the amendments. This is expanded upon in YLAL’s briefing, which calls for MPs to support the prayer against the SI tabled by the Opposition (EDM 559). YLAL has started a campaign, #APrayerForLegalAid, and urges everyone to call on their local MPs to oppose the new legal aid rules. A template tweet and letter to send to MPs can be found here.

 

Resumption of Jury Trials: New jury trials were suspended on 23 March in response to Covid-19 but from 18 May jury trials have slowly been re-introduced with additional safety measures and cleaning standards in place, supported by Public Health England and Public Health Wales. As of 12 June, there are 182 open courts, 98 staffed courts (not open to the public), and 61 suspended courts.

Prior to the resumption of jury trials, YLAL published a statement (full version can be found here) acknowledging the importance of the resumption of trials for access to justice, but called for guarantees that court attendees would not be at risk. YLAL highlighted the disadvantages junior lawyers face as frequent public transport users.

There are special arrangements required for jury trials to enforce social distancing, which include: providing a second courtroom linked by closed circuit TV to enable the media and others to watch proceedings, a separate courtroom for jury deliberations, entrances and exits are carefully supervised, and increased building and touchpoint cleaning will take place. Additionally, HM Courts & Tribunals Service has published this user guide for jury members.

In addition to health risks, the introduction of video hearings raises concerns for the ability to maintain procedural fairness in court. JUSTICE has commissioned a pilot study to address this topic. In particular, JUSTICE’s response highlights the disadvantages faced by people who are deaf, blind, neurodiverse, or digitally excluded due to the costs of internet access and regional exclusion of remote areas.

On 13 May, YLAL held a virtual meeting on the topic of Open Justice and Remote Hearings in the Criminal Justice System during Covid-19 where speakers gave their experiences with the execution of remote hearings and the proposed health and safety measures. Quotes from speakers can be found on this twitter thread and a related article can be found here.

 

Civil Justice Committee Rapid Consultation on Remote Justice: On 16 May, YLAL released its response to the CJC Rapid Consultation, which is a commissioned independent review of the impact of Covid-19 changes on the civil justice system, with a report which became available on 5 June.

YLAL’s response compiles the responses to the CJC’s survey questions from members on their experiences with remote hearings. Overall, the majority of members (75.8%) felt that the current system was working in part, and the response goes on to detail the strengths and weaknesses of remote hearings in several areas of law. However, only 1.5% of respondents felt that current hearings would have a positive impact on open justice – the other 98.5% felt that there would be a negative, slightly negative, or very negative impact.

Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research at the Legal Education Foundation, led the CJC research and said that “the report highlights systemic deficiencies in the information that is currently available on the operation of the civil justice system … Improving the data that is collected is vital to make the voices of litigants in person and lay users of the justice system heard.” The report details practical suggestions for improving the current system and can be found here.

 

Low levels of pay for junior legal workers: A recent survey conducted by Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) (part of the United Voices of the World) has found that 30% of paralegals are earning less than a real living wage, 46% of trainees are earning less than the Law Society’s Recommended minimum salary, and 1 in 4 of both groups are earning less than minimum wage based on actual hours worked.

 

YLAL Covid-19 Report 2.0: Based on 104 responses collected from 2-13 May, YLAL published an updated report detailing the impact of Covid-19 on its members’ professional lives. The report found that 33% of members felt that the situation had improved since the last survey, 28% felt that things have started to improve recently, and 38% saw no improvement.

YLAL made recommendations for the government, chambers, employers and other stakeholders to improve working conditions during this pandemic and calls on the Ministry of Justice and Treasury to consider the effects of the virus on vulnerable members of society and to consider a complete reform of the legal aid system.

For young legal professionals whose wellbeing has been affected by current events, YLAL held a virtual meeting entitled ‘Taking Care of Your Wellbeing During Covid-19’. Minutes from that meeting which provide some helpful resources can be found here.

 

ULaw Career Changer Scholarship: The University of Law has introduced a scholarship for people whose job security has been impacted by Covid-19 and who want to re-train for a career in law. There will be 10 full-fee and 300 partial-fee scholarships (worth up to £2,000) and can be used for a wide range of courses offered, including the GDL/MA Law, LPC, BPC, and LLM. The scholarships will be available as early as September 2020.

The entry-criteria is as follows:

  • You must have a minimum of 3 year’s full-time work experience.
  • You must have received an offer for a place on our Undergraduate Law, Policing and Criminology courses starting in September 2020 to study within the UK or online.

For those who meet these criteria, the application process can be found here.

 

First Hijab-Wearing Judge in the UK: Successful barrister, Raffia Arshad, has recently been appointed a Deputy District Judge on the Midlands circuit and will be the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab in her role as a judge. Arshad was advised by many people to not wear her hijab in professional settings and faced prejudiced in the course of her work, but she has shown that wearing a hijab has not stopped her from having a successful career in law.

Read more about Arshad’s story here.

 

We are very grateful to YLAL member Emmalies Vander Velde for this month's update. If you would like to contribue to YLAL's legal aid news updates, email ylalinfo@gmail.com