APPG on legal aid on 13 Jan

All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid: breakfast meeting on 13 January 2015
 
Write up by YLAL member Phil Armitage
 
The first APPG of 2015 focused on the impact of the cuts to criminal legal aid. The meeting took place during the same week as the hearing of the judicial review case, brought by the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, to challenge the government’s legal aid duty tender process.
 
In attendance at the meeting were three opposition politicians with a justice brief on the Labour frontbench: Lord Bach (Shadow Attorney General), Karl Turner MP (Shadow Solicitor General) and Andy Slaughter MP (Shadow Justice Minister). 
 
John Black: President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association
 
Starting the meeting was John Black who spoke of the “end game” for high street criminal firms if the LCCSA was not successful with the judicial review. He said that up to two-thirds of firms could go out of practice and so the stakes are very high.
 
John Black gave an example of an unrepresented defendant who could not speak English and yet had a very slim chance of finding a solicitor. The judge in the case was described as being “helpless” that something so unacceptable could become routine in our courts. He described how the legacy of publicly funded cases fighting miscarriages of justice was being consigned to the history books and being replaced with legal aid factories and “tick-box justice”. 
 
John Black said that the new rules for criminal legal aid contracts would not work because the client needs to have a relationship with their solicitor and vice versa. New suppliers each time would, he said, end up costing more money or at least make no substantial saving. 
 
When the LCCSA brought their first judicial review review to challenge the duty tender process, Justice Burnett described it as unlawful. But, instead of listening, the Ministry of Justice returned after a short period of consultation with the same proposal. Permission was granted for a new judicial review case and interim relief was granted. John Black said, if they lose this time around then miscarriages of justice will become common and the victims will fill our courts and prisons. 
 
Andy Slaughter MP: Shadow Justice Minister
 
Andy Slaughter started by saying he had tried to find out how much the Ministry of Justice had spent in legal fees in judicial reviews where the department had been found to have acted unlawfully. The Ministry of Justice had told him they didn’t keep track of this figure, but defending the prison book ban had cost the department around £72,000 in legal fees.
 
He referred to the latest round of ‘ping-pong’ between the Commons and the Lords on the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill and that the Lord Chancellor had admitted to a “misunderstanding”. Andy Slaughter said this was typical of the thinking coming from the Ministry of Justice. 
 
On the government’s proposals regarding cuts to fees, he said that the government had coupled the second fee cut with the two-tier proposal. Interestingly, he suggested that Chris Grayling was only interested in the fee cut and that it was the Civil Service pushing the two-tier idea. 
 
On Labour’s plans, he said there was a “no money” situation and Labour would be limited to the current government’s revenue plans with some fully-costed exceptions, for example the NHS. He said they had to be careful making pledges because unfunded commitments would be picked up by the news cycle. He didn’t deny that the legal aid budget was in freefall and welcomed a variety of suggestions about how the system could be improved without additional spending. He said there would be an open-book review of the Ministry of Justice’s budget under a Labour government. 
 
Andy Slaughter stated he was pleased to see the CLSA aren’t dodging the important issues. On two-tier, he said that the government’s evidence had been undermined and guessed very little would happen before the election. Chris Grayling, he said, likes to leave problems to be dealt with post-May as he doesn’t think he will still be in the post. Andy Slaughter stressed he wanted constructive dialogue with the legal professions and the communication breakdown was one of the central problems with the current government’s approach. He ended by saying Labour “will take your advice” and listen to what professional bodies have to say. The wider malaise in the justice system was, he said, widely predictable.
 
Andrew Caplen: President of the Law Society
 
Andrew Caplen spoke next, and stated that a properly functioning legal aid system needs proper funding and that it would be unfair to solely blame this government for the problems; legal aid has been cut for twenty years now. He said that people were given the right to have a solicitor attend their police interview after miscarriages of justice such as the Guildford Four.
 
He pointed out that if politicians want to be ‘tough on crime’, then this will inevitably cause more arrests and the need for more legal representation. We cannot escape our obligations under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He said that as long as the number of arrests continues to rise then there cannot be a limit placed on the legal aid budget. The criminal legal aid profession is, according to Andrew Caplen, currently “as pared down to the bone as it could possibly be”. Governments, he said, cannot keep taking money and expect it to survive.
 
He said the two-tier contract system won’t work. First, small firms won’t be able to cover the large geographic areas required because of a lack of infrastructure. Second, the required expansion for firms is unrealistic and the Ministry of Justice's figures on this are disputed. Third, the market is too destabilised at the moment for law firms with small margins to make considerable investment with little expected return. 
 
Andrew Caplen said, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, that there is no rule of law without access to justice and that people have to be able to enforce their rights. He said that lawyers need to start winning the public argument for legal aid and questioned why the Ministry of Justice was not a protected budget. He said the government has a responsibility to provide justice for their citizens and we need a grown-up debate going forward about how to fund the system. He said the rhetoric of “fat cat” lawyers was unhelpful and that the well repeated statement that we spend more per head on legal aid than any other country is simply not true.
 
 
The next APPG on Legal Aid meeting 
 
The next meeting will take place in Committee Room 11 on Wednesday 18 March 2015, at 5-6pm, to consider the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Oliver Lodge from the National Audit Office, will speak about their recent report about implementing reforms to civil legal aid (www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Implementing-reforms-to-civil-legal-aid1.pdf). To register your place and receive email updates email: conference@lapg.co.uk