All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid – 22 October 2015
On 22 October 2015 there was a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid, which this month focused on the outcome of the criminal legal aid tender and the impact of family legal aid cuts on victims of domestic abuse.
The meeting was chaired by Sir Keir Starmer QC, the recently-elected MP for Holborn and St Pancras and former head of the Crown Prosecution Service. The panel consisted of Jenny Beck, partner at Stephenson's Solicitors and co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women and Jon Black, partner at BSB solicitors and president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association.
Attendees at the meeting included Lord Bach, Karl Turner MP, Andy Slaughter MP and Lord Low.
Administrative hurdles facing clients and legal aid advisors
The meeting opened with Jenny Beck talking about the impact of the family legal aid cuts on victims of domestic abuse. She pointed out that the cuts to legal aid were supposed to preserve access for the most vulnerable in society; however this has not been the case and the cuts that have been made were short sighted and didn't take into account the longer term impact on society and family relationships.
She gave an example of a single mother on income support who is required to provide evidence of domestic abuse in order to get advice on contact with her children's father. The woman is told that she needs to get a letter from her GP confirming that she has been a victim of domestic abuse, but her GP says that as her enquiry isn't urgent she has to wait two weeks, and pay £50. Often the GP letters do not meet the Legal Aid Agency's criteria so more work has to be done to correct this. This causes delay, cost and stress for the client. The advisor will spend around 3 hours helping the client obtain the necessary evidence for legal aid and then advising her, but will only be paid £86.
The result of this is that early initial advice is loss-making work. Jenny later commented that many solicitors are doing this work pro bono because it is more cost effective to do this work for free than try to get the evidence needed for legal aid. However, Jenny pointed out that this early, initial advice is crucial as it enables people to make informed decisions before cases end up in the court arena, and can therefore both save money in the long run and reduce the risk of families and children being forced to endure unnecessary, difficult and potentially damaging court proceedings.
She was of the view that legal help work, i.e. initial advice without representation in court, should be brought back into the scope of legal aid without the need for evidence of domestic abuse.
Recent developments in relation to domestic violence and legal aid
Next to speak was Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, who also spoke about the impact of the family legal aid cuts. She presented the results of research conducted by Rights of Women, which found that:
- 40% of women who have suffered domestic abuse are unable to provide evidence of this that meets the Legal Aid Agency's criteria;
- 38% of women found it 'difficult' and a further 35% found it 'very difficult' to find legal aid providers in their area;
- When faced with these hurdles, 50% of women choose to do nothing about their legal problem.
She reported that Rights of Women had issued judicial review proceedings in respect of the domestic violence criteria, arguing that they were unlawful as they effectively narrowed the (quite broad) statutory definition of domestic abuse that has been accepted by the government. Sadly the application was unsuccessful but the weight of evidence they produced to the court was recognised by the judge.
She also mentioned the fact that although legal aid is technically available to victims of domestic abuse seeking protective injunctions, the monthly contributions can be so high that it is effectively unaffordable.
Criminal legal aid tender
Jon Black then spoke about the current situation regarding the recent criminal legal aid tender for duty solicitor contracts. He explained that the tender was suspended in December 2014 and lifted in April this year, leaving providers with five weeks to submit their bids – the deadline being just before the general election. Practitioners tried to persuade the Ministry of Justice to rethink this and allow some more time to reconsider and make sure the process was conducted properly and fairly. However this fell on deaf ears.
Fewer firms actually bid for contracts than was expected, but still the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency were unable to cope with the volume. A few days before the result of the tender were released, a whistleblower from the Legal Aid Agency revealed that the Ministry of Justice had recruited low paid, unqualified, inexperienced agency workers to assess the bids.
The results of the tender were released to firms on Thursday 15th October. According to Jon Black, this was shambolic with, for example, firms in Cambridge being told they had been awarded contracts in Chester.
As a result of concern and dissatisfaction about the whole process, appeals have been lodged and judicial review proceedings are being issued by firms whose bids were not successful. Over 100 firms have been considering taking action. The profession has been trying to engage with the Ministry of Justice to try and agree a way forward but it has been extremely challenging. In the meantime the future of criminal legal aid will remain uncertain. Jon Black was concerned that people do not just need legal aid funding, they need quality legal advice and representation and the approach taken by the Ministry of Justice will make this very difficult to achieve.
At the end of the meeting, Lord Bach took a few minutes to explain that he and Karl Turner had been appointed by the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, to conduct a review of legal aid. He invited submissions from all who were interested and stressed their intention to include members of all political parties, not just Labour. There was a strong emphasis on goodwill and collaboration.
He also announced that a meeting in respect of this review will take place on Tuesday 3 November, from 4pm to 7pm, at the Grimond Room in Portcullis House. This is an open meeting for all interested to attend. Keir Starmer supported this by suggesting that all those at the meeting inform as many people as possible about the meeting on 3 November.
With thanks to YLAL member Kate Smith for taking minutes.