Legal aid news: June 2020

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

 

Asylum and immigration appeals: On Monday 8th June, the Independent reported that the change to fees for asylum and immigration appeals would put further pressure on legal aid providers and could leave vulnerable asylum seekers and trafficking victims unrepresented. You can find YLAL’s report on the state of access to justice for victims of trafficking here. As YLAL committee member, Rebecca Kingi told the Independent, these changes mark a ‘hammer blow for access to justice’.

Legal aid firm, Duncan Lewis, is threatening to sue the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) for its failure to consult on the amendments set to come into force until June 2021. Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis, said these latest amendments have made the situation untenable for migrant lawyers. There is now too great a risk that legal aid lawyers will simply be unable to represent those who need help the most, having a devastating effect on access to social justice.

The changes will also put increasing pressures on barristers, who might have to prepare a skeleton argument at an earlier stage for as little as £60. Essentially, the new payment scheme will put a financial strain on lawyers who are already struggling with existing fee levels and deter them from taking on more complex cases and thereby harming access to justice.

Karl Turner MP, Shadow Minister for Legal Aid, has stated that the increase in legal aid rates will result in extremely vulnerable appellants with the most complex cases, including trafficking victims, being unrepresented. 

 

Abuse victim challenge to legal aid rulesBBC News published a segment on Tuesday 9th June detailing how a woman was refused Legal Aid because, although she receives Universal Credit, there is equity in the home she owns with her abusive ex-partner. According to the report, one in five women who suffer domestic violence are refused Legal Aid because they are deemed to have ‘capital’ even if they cannot access it. 

The woman in question, ‘Claire’, is essentially trapped by these rules in proceedings to determine the caring arrangements for her children and the sale of their home. In order to access legal advice, Claire would either have to sell her home, making her family homeless, or borrow against its value, which requires her ex-partner’s consent.Consequently, Claire had no option but to represent herself against her ex-partner's barrister which she described as a ‘horrendous’ experience.

The Public Law Project (PLP) is supporting Claire to challenge the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal in the High Court. One of Claire’s lawyers, Katy Watts pointed out that, for domestic violence victims, any equity in the family home is often ‘dead’; ‘even though they may have equity on paper, this is trapped capital. They often have no way of accessing it. Selling will involve getting permission from the person who has been abusing them’.

In February 2019, the MoJ promised to conduct a review into the rules on Legal Aid means-testing. 15 months later, that review has not concluded. 

 

Criminal Justice System under scrutiny due to BLM protests: This month, the murder of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests all over the world and shone the spotlight on systematic racism in the criminal justice system, both in the US and the UK, and the lack of diversity in established professions. 

Research has shown that black people face significant barriers when it comes to entering the legal profession. EachOther spoke to Ife Thompson, a BPTC graduate and founder of Black Protest Legal Support UK - a group of more than 200 lawyers offering pro bono legal advice to support anti-racism demonstrators. 

Thompson told EachOther that ‘even if one element [of the criminal justice system] is fixed, and the others are not, the issues [of structural racism] will remain the same.’ Thompson called for all 35 recommendations in The Lammy Review, written by David Lammy MP in 2017, to be implemented. 

Like Thompson, Allison Munroe QC, barrister at Garden Court Chambers, agrees that structural racism cannot be tackled by looking at one particular injustice, policy or law, but that it involves ‘changing the mindset, rationale and motivating forces of organisations.’

Ann Tayo, a barrister at Cornerstone Chambers with over 30 years’ standing, says that it is vital that more black people enter politics, the civil service and the legal profession; calling for the system to be changed from the inside out. 

 

Abimbola Johnson speaks of her experiences and the Criminal Justice System: Abimbola Johnson, a black criminal defence barrister at 25 Bedford Row, spoke to Elle about the pride she takes in her British-Nigerian heritage and how her blackness and womanhood are part of what makes her a good barrister. She mentioned how she understands the slang used by her black clients and how explaining it on their behalf can strengthen their defence. 

Johnson also spoke about the jarring injustice she witnesses in the Criminal Justice System. Although 3.3% of the UK’s population are from black backgrounds, they represented 22% of stop and searches in 2018.

Additionally, human rights charity Liberty, found people of colour were 54% more likely to be fined under the Coronavirus Act (2020) provisions and regulations. 

A positive amid this unfairness, however, is that public engagement and awareness has helped to scrutinise the systems, to overturn fines and convictions and to push for high profile figures to be better held to account for their actions. Hopefully, this will continue in the long-term. 

 

Victims of trafficking increasingly unable to find legal advice: Last week, the Justice Gap reported on Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ survey that drew responses from individuals working in at least 18 anti-slavery organisations. In the survey, most respondents stated that it was ‘impossible’, ‘extremely difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to find legal aid representation for victims of trafficking. 

According to survey respondents, victims of trafficking regularly return to exploitation to pay for private legal representation due to the unavailability of publicly funded advice. YLAL is calling on the Legal Aid Minister, Alex Chalk MP, to immediately withdraw the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 2020 which it argues make complex asylum and immigration cases financially unviable. 

Details of YLAL’s #APrayerForLegalAid campaign and how you can help are here.

 

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