YLAL Meeting Minutes 14.10.2015

Young Legal Aid Lawyers – Minutes of Meeting on 14 October 2015

Attendees

Rachel Francis, Oliver Carter, Rebecca Cross, Frances McCormack, Kate McFadden, Emily McFadden, Catherine Shannon, Kate Macleod, Philip Armitage, Emily Thornton, Christabel McCooey, Richard Bottomley, Kate Smith, Suzanne Seaton, Tara Mulcair, Derek Bernardi, Gimhani Eriyagolla, Heather Thomas

  1. Update on criminal legal aid

Oliver explained the background and current position of the criminal legal aid judicial reviews, in the absence of Jon Black from the LCCSA (who had been invited to attend but was unable to do so due to urgent developments).

In April 2013, the Ministry of Justice produced a consultation in which it proposed a 17.5% reduction in fees for solicitors and barristers. Following the consultation, the Ministry of Justice decided in September 2013 that the fee cut would be split into two tranches of 8.75%, to be introduced between 2014 and 2015 respectively. The Ministry of Justice also proposed to split criminal legal aid work into two types – ‘duty’ work and ‘own client’ work - with separate contracts for both.

In February 2014, the Ministry of Justice published its decision, that there would be only 525 duty contracts nationwide. As there were estimated to be over 1,600 firms providing criminal legal aid services, this meant that many hundreds of firms would no longer be able to carry out duty work at police stations and would therefore be at risk of going out of business. 

In response to the planned ‘two tier’ contracts and the proposed fee cut, the criminal bar started a policy of ‘no returns’, with barristers refusing to take on returns (where a case is passed on to or covered by another barrister at short notice when the original barrister is unavailable), as they had done previously to the advantage of the Legal Aid Agency. The action was successful and three weeks later the cut in barrister fees was postponed, and then eventually permanently cancelled.

The first 8.75% cut for solicitors, however, did go ahead. The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) brought a successful judicial review action against consultation process for the new two tier contracts. As a result of the court’s judgment, the consultation was re-opened for a short period. At the close of the consultation, the number of contracts was increased by two, from 525 to 527.

A second judicial review was bought to challenge the second consultation, which resulted in the decision to award 527 duty contracts. This judicial review was unsuccessful and the lawfulness of the decision to award only 527 contracts was upheld. Criminal firms then had to tender for contracts, with the tender process closing on 5 May 2015.

The Ministry of Justice have been assessing the bids since then. In June 2015, the Ministry of Justice announced the second 8.75% fee cut would take effect in July. Solicitors firms started boycotting legal aid cases, in an action which was publicised widely in the mainstream media. In mid-July, the Criminal Bar Association voted to join action with solicitors to support them, with both the bar and solicitors refusing to take on legal aid cases at the new rates.

After 52 days the boycott was suspended as a gesture of goodwill, because it was felt progress had been made in negotiations with the Ministry of Justice. On 15 September, the Ministry of Justice decided to suspend the second fee cut. Since then, the LCCSA and CLSA have been consulting members on whether to accept this deal.

In relation to the outcome of the tender process, this was been pushed back until 15th October, although in the last day there has been news of a whistleblower within the Legal Aid Agency telling the Law Society Gazette that the tendering process was a ‘shambles’ and that bids were not assessed fairly.

  1. Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) conference

Heather provided an update on the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) annual conference on 9 October 2015. There were various plenary sessions on issues relating to access to justice, technology and human rights.

YLAL had two workshops, the first of which was in the morning and was led by Laura Janes (founder of YLAL) and Martha Spurrier (barrister at Doughty Street Chambers). It was a discussion-based workshop including an overview of the various legal aid judicial reviews of the last few years and the stage they have reached. The second part of the workshop focussed on human rights principles and how these have benefited clients.  We will request a copy of the paper prepared by Martha Spurrier and circulate to members.

Our second workshop was run by YLAL co-chairs, Rachel and Oliver, and Alison Leivesley (a partner at TV Edwards), who gave tips and advice to junior lawyers on getting into the profession. There were 20 places subsidised for University of Law students to attend. Overall both sessions were well received.

  1. New Labour leadership and legal aid review

Jeremy Corbyn has a positive view of legal aid as a former chair and regular attendee of the APPG on legal aid. One of the first steps he took as the new Labour leader was to announce a review of the party’s legal aid policy. This is being conducted by Lord Bach, who has admitted that Labour’s manifesto offer on legal aid was pitiful. Labour have asked us to contribute to this review. They are formulating their terms of reference now, so we want to strike whilst the iron is hot, with ideas on how we would design a policy.

Phil pointed out that we need concrete things to ask for, because during the last Parliament Labour were critical of the transformation of legal aid, but when it came down to making promises to overturn specific cuts, more often than not they did not deliver.

Rachel and Oliver will be meeting with Lords Bach and Beecham to put to them our views. We have the perspective of young lawyers across the sector (CILEx, barristers, solicitors, paralegals and students), who are often at the coalface when starting out in legal aid, and have first-hand experience of turning people away.

Christabel made a suggestion that drug addictions relating to other offending behaviour should be brought to their attention for addressing in the manifesto. It was also raised by Kate that the campaign should not be too narrow, as this was part of the problem in the campaigns surrounding the legal aid judicial reviews.

Rachel said that this should be more than just areas not in scope anymore, but also about broader legal principles of access to justice.

It was agreed that members could email ylalinfo@googlemail.com with any ideas they have for Oliver and Rachel to take to the meeting. Emails should have the subject title ‘Legal Aid review’.

  1. Court fees: Ministry of Justice consultation and Justice Select Committee Inquiry

We have submitted responses to both the Ministry of Justice consultation on further court fee increase and the Justice Select Committee inquiry into recent court fee increases, including the criminal courts charge and employment tribunal fees. The consultation response is available on our website and we are awaiting permission to publicise the response to the inquiry. The responses were prepared by Oliver, Rachel and Aine.

  1. Bar Standards Board consultation

Both the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are consulting on legal education. Last month, we had Julie Brannan from the SRA come to explain the new proposals on legal education for those wishing to train as solicitors. Both of the consultations hark back to the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR).

The BSB consultation is open now and closes on 30 October 2015. It considers proposals both on the requirements to be admitted to the Bar Practitioners Training Course and in terms of securing pupillage.

  1. All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (APPG)

Phil gave us an update on the APPG meeting on 16 September 2015. The APPG discussed the advice sector with groups from CAB, legal advice clinics and Lord Low who is doing a commission on legal support. Everyone agreed that it has been a challenging environment since LASPO was introduced. The demand is rising, and there are less people able to offer legal advice. Legal advice centres are having to close down. There are now whole areas of the country with no one to offer housing or welfare advice.

There was a discussion about technology, in which people said it shouldn’t be replacing face to face advice, but may help with early intervention. This was quite a controversial proposal, as some people don’t have access to the internet, and whether this would be shutting them out altogether. Pro bono was also discussed, and whether we should be relying on CAB volunteers. There was a discussion on joining up advice centres with GP surgeries. 

The next APPG will be on 22 October 2015 between 9am and 10am, and will be in the Jubilee room in the Houses of Parliament. It will cover hot topics in legal aid and will be chaired by Sir Keir Starmer QC MP. It’s going to discuss the outcome of the criminal legal aid tender as well as hearing from the director of Rights of Women about the domestic violence evidence criteria for legal aid.  Anyone wishing to attend just needs to register with the APPG conveners, or can google the APPG on Legal Aid, which will give you the links.

  1. Justice Alliance

Information was provided to new members on who the Justice Alliance are, and that YLAL are part of their coalition. There is currently no Justice Alliance update.

  1. YLAL outside London

Emily provided an update on groups outside of London:

Midlands: 20 October 2015, there is an event in Nottingham, focussing on the criminal bar

Birmingham: 12 November 2015, there will be a social

Liverpool: 15 October 2015, there will be an introduction to legal aid event and 3 December 2015 there will be an event on human rights

North East: 11 November 2015, there will be a social, with details to TBC.

  1. AOB

The LCCSA are holding an event on 29 October 2015 “How our justice system can wreck the lives of the innocent” with Paul Gambaccini, Christopher Jeffries and Own Bowcott. See the LCCSA website for more details.