Legal Aid News: July 2020

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from July 2020.

 

YLAL among the practitioner groups uniting to declare that they will fight any plans to demolish or alter the jury system: Presented as a solution to the Crown Court backlog, which has been perpetuated by Covid-19, Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC indicated in June that legislation to allow trial without jury could be passed within weeks. The statement published by YLAL, among other practitioner groups representing BAME and junior lawyers, stated that the abolition of jury trials “for either-way offences under the guise of a Covid-19 emergency response is disingenuous and a threat to the integrity of our criminal justice system”, highlighting the right of a person facing such a judgement to “have their case heard and judged by people representative of their community”. 

Issues of representation centre on three characteristics:

1.     Ethnicity: Although approximately 20% of defendants who appear the Courts identified as being from BAME backgrounds, just 4% of Crown Court judges identified as BAME.

2.     Age: Judges and magistrates are much older than the general population, with the average age of a Crown Court judge being 52 and 84% of magistrates being aged 50 and over.

3.     Socio-economic background: Whilst only 7% of the general population attend private schools, 74% of senior judges are privately educated.

Given these statistics, a randomly selected jury of twelve bring a diversity that the judiciary and magistracy are unlikely to match. CBA Chair Caroline Goodwin QC remarked that jury trials enable the criminal justice system to remain “the preserve of our collective responsibility, and not the domain of any elite minority”. 

The proposal to abolish juries was shelved on 22 July, although the Lord Chancellor did suggest that reduced, ‘wartime’ juries remained a possibility. For a recent article written by YLAL member Pietra Asprou exploring the proposals to abolish and now reduce the minimum number of jurors, please click this link.

Other plans to tackle the backlog of cases included ten ‘Nightingale Courts’, as announced by the Lord Chancellor on 19th July. 

 

What next for new asylum and immigration legal aid fixed fees?: Following the YLAL June 2020 report ‘A Sector at Breaking Point’, which outlined a “prima facie breach of the government’s legal duties” to ensure access to legally aided asylum and immigration representation for victims of trafficking, YLAL’s #APrayerForLegalAid campaign hoped to rally support for EDM 559 to strike down the Civil Legal Aid (Renumeration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. 

Twenty-two anti-trafficking NGOs wrote to Legal Aid Minister Alex Chalk MP, calling on him to withdraw and roll out consultations on new legal aid rules under the Civil Legal Aid, voicing concern that the new rules would make it “increasingly difficult” to get survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery legal representation. The report was referred to in a letter from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to the Legal Aid Minister, urging him to “pause these changes to consult with the asylum and immigration legal aid sector and conduct an impact assessment”. 

When asked by Fleur Anderson MP if he would “commit to urgently assess the impact of that fixed fee and to funding a system that pays a fair wage to legal aid lawyers”, the Lord Chancellor replied that he has “already committed to the second stage of the consultation indeed to… fully reflect the nature of the work that is undertaken by immigration practitioners”, insisting the new fees were always going to be the “first stage” of the legal aid review. According to Alex Chalk MP, we can expect the consultation to be opened in the next six weeks.

 

YLAL Member Siobhan Taylor-Ward wins the Legal Aid Newcomer of the Year Award at the LALY Awards: At the virtual awards ceremony, Siobhan was described by the LALY judges as “a dedicated social welfare lawyer and dogged campaigner for justice in the broadest sense”. Accepting her award, Siobhan said this: “I really wanted to help change society. I’d worked with vulnerable people for a long time and I wanted to do my best to help.” One barrister said Siobhan has “all the makings of a really transformative legal aid lawyer who will be an asset to the sector”.

 

New four-part series by The Secret Barrister and Channel 4 News shines a light on our broken criminal justice system: For the first of the four films that have brought our troubled criminal justice system to prime time TV, please visit this link

 

Committee Member Emma Trevett speaks at All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid meeting: Emma raised the findings of the YLAL COVID-19 reports (1st report in April, 2nd report in May) and read the poem ‘Criminal Defence Solicitor Blues’, shining a light on the realities of working as a legal aid practitioner in 2020. Richard Miller, Head of Justice at the Law Society, identified changing the means test threshold for legal aid as an “obvious crucial lever”, as “providing early advice” and “having representation for all parties in court” will ease the court backlog more effectively. With regards to threshold changes to the legal aid means test, Alex Chalk MP told the group that the Government are “looking to publish our findings long with a consultation on policy options in spring 2021”. Please find a broader summary of the meeting here.

 


What about legal aid practitioners? In recognition of their “vital contribution”, the Government announced an above-inflation pay rise of up to 3.1% for almost 900,000 public sector workers: The increase has been directed towards doctors, dentists, teachers, police officers, NCA, prison officers, the judiciary and senior civil servants and military personnel. This left some notable gaps, such as social care staff and legal aid practitioners. Law Society president Simon Davis took the opportunity to note that “civil legal aid and criminal defence practitioners have been working throughout the pandemic to seek justice for their clients and yet legal aid fees rates have not increased in cash terms, let alone in real terms, in over 20 years”, raising the issue of the sustainability of current legal aid fee rates.

 

50th Anniversary for the UK Law Centres Movement marked by report that warns that millions could fall into “hidden justice gap”: The ‘Law For All’ report signals an alarming spike (anything between 90%-500%) in people seeking help from law centres for issues between March and June of this year – an increase of anything between 90% and 500% across different regions.

A term developed by Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University, the ‘justice gap’ relates to the difference between the maximum earnings at which someone can get legal aid and the amount they would need to earn to cover their own legal costs through their income. The report calculates that nearly half of working, single individuals with no children would fall into the gap as would 76% of working, single parents with one child at primary school, with figures increasing for single parents and working couples with multiple children. This leaves potentially millions unable to “afford legal assistance without sacrificing a life essential”; Richard Miller commented that “law centres offer an important lifeline” in meeting such legal needs. 

In the foreword to the report, Law Centres Network director Julie Bishop highlights the role of law centres in helping people to navigate a “seemingly impenetrable” justice system, whilst reinforcing that the report shows a “funding sinkhole” reflected in the ‘justice gap’. The Law Centres Network’s new campaign, also dubbed ‘Law For All’, seeks to address the funding challenge that law centres face by diversifying funding streams (the new Justice Fund), engaging the legal community and engaging the public. A summary of the report can be found here.

 

We are very grateful to YLAL member Charlotte Green for this month's update. If you would like to contribue to YLAL's legal aid news updates, email ylalinfo@gmail.com