APPG on Legal Aid - 07.02.2018

APPG on Legal Aid: Legal Aid and Inquests, New Domestic Violence Regulations and Prison Law reforms

Introduction by Andy Slaughter MP for Hammersmith, vice president of the APPG on Legal Aid.

Jenny Beck, award winning family lawyer and Director of Beck Fitzgerald Lawyers and Consultants, spoke about the new Domestic Violence Regulations, which came into force on 8 January 2018. The Regulations deal with the ‘Domestic Violence Gateway’ scheme and, in general, are seen to be a positive step towards making access to legal aid a simpler process for victims of domestic violence in family law cases.

It is hoped that by broadening the range of acceptable evidence of domestic violence (which now includes evidence from front line organisations and housing support officers, in addition to court documents and expert evidence, health professionals, local authorities and public bodies) that can be used in support of applications for legal aid and by removing the 2 year time limit imposed under LASPO that meant only recent evidence of domestic violence could be used, genuine victims of domestic violence will find it easier to apply for legal aid in future. The hurdles imposed by the LASPO regime resulted in more than 40% of victims of domestic violence being unable to gain access to free legal representation.

Although this demonstrates a positive, collaborative response from the government in relation to issues with the reality of legal aid availability in this area of law, Jenny observed that there is a long way to go to make this a system that provides truly accessible representation. For example, the current focus lies on physical abuse while granting legal aid in the case of other forms of abuse, such as financial abuse, remain at the discretion of the LAA.

Laura Janes, legal director of The Howard League for Penal Reform talked about the judicial review brought by the Howard League in conjunction with Prisoners’ Advice Service to challenge the legality of restricting prisoners’ access to legal aid to all but prison disciplinary hearings and early release. Under LASPO, prisoners were forced to apply for legal aid through the ‘Exceptional Case Funding’ system, which is notoriously difficult to navigate. A lack of legal representation left many prisoners effectively forgotten and has left many with irreparable psychological harm. Since the legal aid cuts in 2012, Laura noted that suicide rates amongst prisoners have risen to the highest ever on record.

As a result of the judicial review, the Court of Appeal found that the cuts were unlawful and cause systemic injustice. As a result, from 21 February 2018, legal aid will be restored in three key areas: (i) pre-tariff reviews; (ii) Category A (where a prisoner can be categorised/decategorised as among the ‘most dangerous’ prisoners; and (iii) placement of prisoners in closed supervision units (which is the most isolated custody available).

Greg Powell, Managing Partner of Powell Spencer and Partners Solicitors, specialises in serious crime, civil liberties and terrorism and discussed the issues facing criminal practitioners in the light of the legal aid budget cuts.

The Crown Court operates a complicated scheme for payment of legal services whereby the amount lawyers are paid is based on the pages count of the case in question. There is, however, significant disparity between the pay received for a small page count case (such as burglary), and a large page count case. In addition, the MOJ recently capped payment at 6,000 pages. As cases often far exceed this, those working in this area will not be adequately compensated for their time. A judicial review is therefore being brought against the MOJ.

Greg also noted that more resources were needed in order to effectively analyse material secured in the course of a criminal investigation, and that currently many mistakes and/or failures to disclose, have led to cases being compromised, or dropped altogether. The BBC is currently making a programme dedicated to this issue.

Greg also discussed the introduction of ‘released under investigation’, which was introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017, as a result of many prisoners being left in the unfortunate and uncertain position of bail. Far from counteracting this, the new system is even less certain than bail, and effectively means the suspect has their life put on hold whilst waiting indefinitely for a decision as to proceedings from the police.

Greg commented that as Ministers of Justice hold office for so short a time, they have no real impetus to effect positive and long-standing reform within the criminal justice system.

Chris Peace (Project Worker for LAPG) spoke about the Public Authorities Accountability Bill (aka the ‘Hillsborough Law’) which calls for the availability of legal aid for families at inquests and public inquiries. The Bill seeks to address the unwillingness of public authorities to be challenged, encouraging constructive criticism and reform. For families challenging public authorities, the experience can be a ‘David and Goliath’ battle. For this reason, regardless of whether the significant evidential burden for a full civil legal aid claim has been satisfied, legal aid should be available for inquests. The Bill itself is the collaborative effort of lawyers who have been involved in cases such as the Hillsborough disaster. 

 

YLAL would like to thank Olivia Allen for preparing this summary of the APPG meeting.