APPG on Legal Aid - 17.1.2017

On 17 January 2017, The All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) on Legal aid, on Pro Bono and on Public Legal Education came together for the first time to host a conversation with Sir Oliver Heald QC, the Minister of State for Courts and Justice. YLAL jointly co-ordinates the APPG on Legal Aid with the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.

At the joint meeting, the Minister kicked off the meeting with a speech laying out the MoJ’s current priorities in this area:

1. Reform of the courts; 

2. The upcoming, and eagerly anticipated, review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO); and

3. The MoJ’s work on litigants in person

The reform agenda

The Minister paid tribute to the UK legal system, particularly highlighting that British lawyers, judges and courts have a good reputation internationally. He thought, however, that modernisation was required to maintain the level of respect in this system. Echoing the Prime Minister in language used regarding a range of other Government policies, Heald stressed the need to ensure the justice system worked “for all in this society” and to improve individual experiences of the justice system.

Digitalisation is at the heart of the Minister’s vision of how to deliver this, with a drive towards “swifter justice”. This process has already begun in the criminal courts with the pilots in Liverpool leading the way. You can read more about this here.

Civil court reform would focus on the proposals set out in the Civil Courts Structure Review by Lord Justice Briggs.  You can read more about this here.

Legal aid and LASPO

Heald described legal aid as a “fundamental pillar” of the justice system and, although committed to defending the Government’s legacy on legal aid and clear that there could be no return to the position before 2010, he recognised that some of the reforms made were “substantial”.

He announced that the MoJ considered enough time has now passed for the reforms to bed in and that the post implementation review process could therefore begin. A post-legislative memorandum on LASPO will be presented to the Justice Select Committee, covering a number of issues on the Act including: how litigation has affected it; how it has been implemented; and the various reviews of the legislation by the National Audit Office and others.  The Minister committed to looking at the extent to which the changes to legal aid had met their objectives in this memorandum.

A full post implementation review of legal aid would then follow with a wider scope than the memorandum. The Government intends to work “closely and collaboratively” with organisations to inform the conclusions of this review.

The plans for this review would be outlined when the memorandum to Parliament is presented.

Litigants in person

The Minister then took some time to explain the on-going work with the pro bono sector to support litigants in person and provide them with high-quality user-friendly information. Again, the role of digitalisation in opening up opportunities to educate litigants in person was promoted. Innovative schemes like the RCJ Citizens Advice Bureau service to help litigants in person with court forms were praised. It is worth taking a look at the support strategy here if you are interested in this topic.

Q&A

The Minister then took questions from attendees at the meeting. Questions were raised about the scope of the LASPO review including whether it would cover tribunal fees, the position of the most vulnerable (including children and young people), the issue of “local lotteries” and the problems with the MoJ’s cost effectiveness assumptions thus far.  The Minister was not able to comment on these issues beyond what had already been said, but did engage in dialogue with the parliamentarians, community and third sector organisations who were present.

Everyone present agreed that already under-pressure local advice centres might struggle to stay open if the implementation of the review would be a long time coming.

Ideas were also put forward for the reformation agenda and the extent of reform on that front was challenged.  The Minister assured the challengers that the cost-cutting proposals would be proportionate and not unduly impact on the quality of the justice system. 

We will update members on details of the next meeting of the APPG on Legal Aid and developments with the LASPO review in due course. 

We would like to thank YLAL member Janani Paramsothy for preparing this summary of the APPG meeting on 17 January 2017.