APPG on Legal Aid - 17.04.18

APPG on Legal Aid : Post-LASPO Litigation – Where are we now?

Panellists:

  • Olive Craig (Rights of Women on domestic violence evidence requirements)
  • Simon Creighton (Founding Partner, Bhatt Murphy on legal aid for prisoners)
  • Polly Brendon (Public Law Project on Exceptional Case Funding)
  • Jo Cecil (Garden Court Chambers and The Criminal Bar Association)
  • Matthew Shelly (Legal Aid Agency (MOJ), Deputy Director of Legal Aid and Court Fees Policy)

Summary:

The meeting took place against the backdrop of the uproar concerning further cuts to the legal aid fees paid to practitioners following the recent additions to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (“AGFS”), a matter which naturally made its way into the conversation through constructive questions and statements.

When considering ways through which the state could responsibly police the distribution of legal aid whilst preserving quality advice services, Olive Craig suggested the introduction of a detailed means test in addition to increased usage of streamlined mediation services as a supplementary alternative to litigation. It was also suggested that the government should review the types legal proceedings that qualify for legal aid funding.

Simon Creighton spoke candidly on the impact the cuts have had on the quality and quantity of prison advice services over the last few years following the decision of former Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling to remove legal aid assistance in nearly all Prison Law cases. Mr Creighton briefly outlined the approach taken in the successful judicial review of that decision brought by leading prison law bodies, the Howard League for Penal Reform and The Prisoners’ Advice Service. A notable part of the challenge was the decision to lead with the submission that the removal of legal aid was ‘a breach of common law standards of fairness’ rather than the submission that the action was a breach of the prisoners’ human rights.

Jo Cecil continued with a bold statement, stating “the Criminal Justice System is in a state of abject crisis...in a state of collapse”. She touched on the ongoing strike at the criminal bar which has seen an increasing number of chambers, lead by the Criminal Bar Association, refusing all legal aid cases from the 1st of April 2018. The breakdown of the criminal justice system is said to be evident not only at the bar, but also in the decline in criminal defence solicitors and within the police force. Financial restraints continue to impact diversity recruitment practices as well as retention. Nonetheless, the Criminal Bar Association are open to commencing ‘constructive dialogue’ on the matter.  

To conclude, we heard from Matthew Shelly of the Legal Aid Agency and LASPO review lead. He assured the group that his team had begun the engagement process on the review, touched on the conception of a dedicated select committee and invited practitioners to provide suggestions on the matter. Following recent discussions with the Lord Chancellor, Mr Shelly spoke candidly to the group concerning expectations regarding the review, specifically stating that the answer could not be found in “reversing the reforms or simply putting money back in the system”. The review team welcome suggestions from practitioners, experts and the like, though they are unable to commit to a deadline for the review at present. If you would like to contribute to the review you can do so via email at: lasporeviewmoj@justice.gsi.gov.uk

YLAL would like to thank Damilola Ojuri for preparing this report of the APPG meeting.