On 20 July 2020, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group hosted the ‘APPG on Legal Aid’ virtual meeting. Chaired by Karen Buck MP, the event focused on Covid-19 and its impact on the legal aid sector.
The first speaker was Minister Alex Chalk, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice. He highlighted three important aspects of legal aid, the first being that the State will not always get justice right. He detailed that mistakes will be made, and that legal aid must be in place to support and protect individuals. Second, he articulated that ‘legal aid is a vital tool for entrenching the rule of law, in empowering individuals and enabling the courts to do justice.’ Lastly, he added that legal aid practitioners are owed immense gratitude for their continuous work and support. He proceeded to outline some of the government’s recent efforts. Examples of these included: financial support of the law centres; funding the Access to Justice Foundation; putting £25 million into the Citizens Advice bureau; £800,000 in legal options for women survivors charity; relaxing eligibility and requirements for hardship payments in the Crown court; increasing staff for the application process; enabling civil solicitors; updating the Standard civil contract 2018; relaxing the LAA contract requirements. Next, Minister Chalk touched on the recovery from Covid-19 difficulties with more courts now operating across the UK this week. There has been an increase in ‘effective trials in Magistrates courts’ and the opening of ten Nightingale courts in England and Wales, with more to come. The minister then mentioned two essential priorities: having access to early legal advice and support; making the legal aid sector more sustainable. He emphasised reviewing the income and capital thresholds and the means test. He announced that the review of the means test has resumed, the results are expected to be published in the Spring of 2021. Minister Chalk stated that the review will look into legal aid fees, early advice and support, technology, and increasing legal aid talent.
The second speaker was Karl Turner MP, Shadow Justice Minister for Legal Aid. He began by stating that legal aid is the foundation of the entire justice system. He articulated the importance of the statutory right of access to justice and legal aid. He emphasised that access to justice has been significantly underfunded over the last decade. As a result, justice is currently being denied. He raised a statistic by the Bar Council stating that in 2019, spending on justice in England and Wales amounted to ‘less than a quarter of what we spend on defense as a nation.’ Turner attributed this significant decline of access to justice to the LASPO Act. He then mentioned that cuts to the justice sector greatly impacts the poorest and the most vulnerable in society, emphasising that ‘access to justice and legal aid is in mortal danger.’ This issue has long pre-dated Covid-19 and is ‘now only exacerbated’ by it. Next, he referred to the lack of increase in legal aid rates since the 1990s. He detailed that legal aid, (as we know it), will not survive unless there is drastic intervention and investment. A solution Turner mentioned is one of sufficient funding by the MOJ to sustain and provide for access to justice. For legal aid lawyers, Turner asked for an independent body that will determine fee rates. Lastly, he stated that the current crisis of the legal aid sector is nothing new and must not be blamed on Covid-19, but rather on the severe and historical underfunding – the recent efforts by the MOJ are not enough.
The third speaker was Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar of England and Wales. She began by mentioning the significant budget cuts to the justice sector from 2010 to 2019. Specifically, she articulated that ‘the justice budget has been slashed by 24% in real terms’ since 2010. Additionally, ‘the legal aid authorities budget suffered a 37% reduction.’ She went on to mention four key topics; access to justice; Legal Aid/sustainability; the young Bar; data. She stated that access to justice is crucial, and that courts must be functioning for justice to be accessible. Pinto highlighted the lack of funding of the justice sector by the Ministry when compared to other European countries. She mentioned that LASPO made justice accessible only to people who ‘have the money or qualify for exceptional case funding.’ Regarding Barristers, she highlighted payment delays and presented a statistic from the latest Bar survey stating that ‘29% of publicly funded barristers do not even know if they will renew their practising certificate next April.’ Related were her concerns for the young Bar, specifically the reduction in work and income, despite the current backlog. Regarding data, she drew our attention to the need for more data collection but also raised the concern that data is not being properly collected.
The fourth speaker was Caroline Goodwin QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association. She began by highlighting the level of importance of legal aid and access to justice in the public eye, recognising that the sector is not being regarded as crucial during the pandemic. Despite this, Goodwin urged the Government to truly prioritise the legal aid sector and to increase its funding. Because of continuous underfunding, she stated that ‘a whole generation of practitioners will be lost.’ A significant point mentioned by Goodwin was the current condition of the Crown courts in light of budget cuts. Some examples included|: a lack of clean running water; broken sewage pipes; poor infrastructure in these publicly funded establishments. She attributes this to the broader defunding of the justice sector, which Covid-19 has exposed.
The fifth speaker was Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at the Law Society. Miller highlighted three problems that firms are currently facing; ‘the cash flow implications of Covid-19’; ‘lost income suffered’; ‘the underlying problems of sustainability.’ Miller urged that these three must be addressed to avoid permanent damage to the legal aid sector. He detailed that the departments of ‘crime, immigration and housing’ were greatly impacted by Covid-19. He highlighted the difficulty of working on cases during the pandemic. For example, the difficulty of remote hearings as ‘they take longer and less is achieved within the available time.’ This results in the completion of fewer cases, an increase in the backlog and the mental fatigue induced by virtual hearings. He provides us with some potential solutions to these problems: ‘providing early advice’; proper representation of all parties in court; ‘increasing the threshold in the means test.’
The sixth speaker was Chris Minnoch, CEO at Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Minnoch acknowledged the current engagements in improving the legal aid sector but recognised that more needs to be done. Particularly, he asked for more concrete action from the Ministry of Justice.
The final speaker was Emma Trevett from YLAL, Paralegal at Irwin Mitchell LLP, Bristol Law Centre Volunteer. Trevett detailed the findings and statistics from the two YLAL Covid-19 reports. Both reports are available in full on the YLAL website. Trevett called upon the SRA, the Council of the Inns of Court, the Bar Standards Board and the Legal Aid Agency to protect junior legal aid practitioners. She also asked them to help the legal aid sector in general from the problems arising from Covid-19 and the pre-existing issue of underfunding. Trevett concluded with the reading of a poem called Criminal Defense Solicitor Blues by the Legal Action Group and Lockdown Lawyers, the proceeds go to the Law Centres Network.
We are very grateful to YLAL member Christopher James Khoury for this write-up. If you'd like to volunteer to write up a future YLAL event, email email@example.com.