Carol Storer, the director of Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), joined us as a guest speaker to discuss what happens next for legal aid, following this month’s election. Ollie introduced Carol, noting that we had expected this meeting to be about the implications of a significant Conservative majority government. However, we now have a hung Parliament with a minority Conservative government, and a strengthened Labour party which is the most pro-access to justice in recent memory.
Carol covered a number of topics on upcoming challenges and opportunities, including:
- The starting point is that legal aid needs better PR. The public do not understand it, especially civil legal aid. We need to find a way for legal aid to capture the imagination like health and education. Nobody says funding for the NHS means pay increases for doctors. How do we get this message across?
- As someone with experience of lobbying, it is hard to say what sort of lobbying is the most effective. Carol mentioned the recent Liberty “Keep Britain Kind” campaign as an example of a good campaign. She also mentioned LAPG’s Manifesto on Legal Aid as an example of trying to do proactive, rather than reactive lobbying.
- Members should all try to contact their MPs. Congratulate them on their election or re-election and try to get them to understand where there are now gaps in the system regarding legal aid. Maybe consider taking a client with you to see an MP to explain how their problems can no longer be assisted by legal aid. (Please note that we will be preparing a template email to new MPs to send soon!)
- The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid is a useful vehicle. Even if not many parliamentarians attend, inviting MPs to attend means they have the relevant information and they know that constituents care about the issue.
- The five year LASPO review has been promised by the government for April 2018. Before the election there was a good team of civil servants in the MoJ preparing for this, and reading all the relevant material. LAPG has written to the new Lord Chancellor about the review. It is an opportunity as there are even Conservatives who felt that LASPO went too far. The Law Society is also doing its own LASPO review.
- The Bach Commission set up by Jeremy Corbyn has released an interim report into legal aid, and will release its final report by party conference season.
- Consider the usefulness of attending party conferences. Fringe events can provide a useful opportunity.
- We have a new Lord Chancellor – David Lidington. He has been absent from some key legal aid votes so we do not know really what his position is. But the big problem he is facing as he enters office is prisons, so will he be concerned about legal aid? It remains to be seen whether he will understand the difference between his government role as Justice Secretary and his constitutional role as Lord Chancellor. There are also now five ministers in the MoJ. We fear that legal aid will fall under Dominic Raab, and he may not be supportive.
- On Brexit, we have no idea at all what impact this might have.
Carol concluded by saying that she really does believe in engagement with MPs, and that it can have an impact.
There was then a group discussion with Carol and attendees at the meeting:
- On the Bach Commission, there was a discussion regarding whether it should be seen to be reasonable or strident. If the tide has turned against austerity and public sector cuts then this is an opportunity. The costs arguments about knock-on costs made when LASPO was being passed are still good ones.
- On the LASPO review there was a discussion as to its scope. How much research should factor into the review? Carol is pinning her hopes on the civil servants who have said they would look at everything. But there is a school of thought which says that if the review is thorough, it just allows them to cut more once they properly understand the system. YLAL has always supported a comprehensive review. Questions were asked whether more cuts would even be feasible without a Conservative majority, although the point was made that they may have a majority of English and Welsh MPs, which is all that is necessary. Nobody knows the DUP stance on legal aid.
- There was a discussion of the interplay of litigation and campaigning. Litigation has had more success in stopping some of the worst policies – the residence test for example. But litigation is only one part of a campaigning strategy.
- There was discussion of whether the Lib Dem leadership election posed opportunities for legal aid as an issue in the Lib Dems.
- There was some discussion of the best way to engage with MPs. Many attendees would not feel confident going to speak to their MP about legal aid. There was discussion of the sort of local issues they may engage with – issues like housing and immigration, which their caseworkers are dealing with. As lawyers, we should be engaging with caseworkers. Offer time to go their constituency days. We can be helpful in signposting them so they can advise constituents whilst at the same time making them aware of the legal aid limitations.
Any Other Business
- Committee recruitment – we discussed YLAL’s drive to recruit new members for our national committee. Thank you to everyone who applied! We will contact all applicants shortly.
- Katherine has a meeting with the BSB about changes to pupillage. If you have any thoughts on this, speak to her or contact us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).