Legal aid news - February 2017

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from February 2017.

Criminal legal aid: the Ministry of Justice is consulting on reform to the two fee schemes for criminal legal aid, the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) and the Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS). The consultation on proposed changes to the AGFS closed on 2 March – you can read YLAL’s response here – and the LGFS consultation closes on 24 March. We are preparing our response to the LGFS consultation and will publish it on our website once it has been submitted.

The Law Society, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association released a joint position statement on the LGFS consultation, opposing any further cuts to legal aid as a “very real threat to access to justice”. The Big Firms Group, whose 40 members carry out approximately 25% of criminal legal aid work, also opposed the LGFS proposals, calling on the Ministry of Justice to “quickly abandon the false premise that the criminal justice system is sustainable on its current course”.

The Law Society Gazette reported that the Lord Chancellor is willing to drop the second 8.75% fee cut for criminal legal aid – with strings. Robin Murray, former vice-chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, wrote for the Gazette about “fighting fee cuts”, calling on the legal profession to unite and fight for its survival. It was subsequently reported – again by the Gazette – that protest action by criminal defence lawyers could be on the cards, “as anger escalates over the government’s latest attempt to slash legal aid fees”.

Meanwhile, Catherine Baksi for Legal Voice asked whether the government is pursuing a policy of “consolidation by stealth” by refusing duty solicitor allocations, and reported on a potential boycott by criminal defence solicitors of cross-examinations of victims of domestic violence in response to proposed cuts in the LGFS consultation.

Domestic violence: the government announced that it will remove the five year time limit for evidence of domestic violence for applications for legal aid in family court hearings, as well as expanding the range of evidence which can be used to provide evidence of domestic violence. The move was welcomed by charities and organisations which have campaigned against the restrictive domestic violence eligibility criteria, including Rights of Women, which last year brought a successful legal challenge to the regulations.

Rights of Women director Estelle du Boulay said: “This is a victory for women and also for common sense. The purpose of legal aid is to ensure everyone in society can equally access safety and justice through the law”. Jenny Beck, co-chair of Legal Aid Practitioners Group, welcomed the decision, saying that it “will enable efficient and targeted legal advice and representation to be given to those most in need. Costs, time and most importantly, lives will be saved”.

Earlier in the month, it was reported by The Guardian that abusers are to be prevented from cross-examining their ex-partners in the family courts. The Prisons and Courts Bill would instead give judges the power to appoint a legal aid lawyer to carry out the questioning.

CCMS: Fiona Bawdon reported for Legal Voice that the Legal Aid Agency is “in denial” over its flawed digital billing scheme, the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS). Anyone who has used CCMS will be aware that it has been beset with problems since its introduction, and is still frequently unavailable due to “disruption” a year after it was made compulsory. The LAA responded to criticisms of CCMS in Legal Voice here – it said its staff “carry out their statutory responsibility” and that it understands “the importance of a fully functioning and reliable CCMS”. Notably the LAA failed to give any assurance that legal aid lawyers who speak publicly about their experiences of CCMS will not be subjected to any kind of backlash from the LAA.

Legal education and training: YLAL co-chairs Rachel and Ollie wrote for Legal Action about the recent consultations by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) on proposals to reform the way solicitors and barristers of the future are educated and trained. The SRA and BSB consultations provided “a unique opportunity to impress upon the regulators the need for legal training to promote access to the profession for all”. Our response to the BSB consultation is here and our response to the SRA consultation is here.

Asylum seekers: YLAL committee member Ronagh Craddock wrote for openJustice about the impact of legal aid cuts on asylum seekers, who may be left homeless and destitute because of lack of access to legal advice. Two of Ronagh’s fellow Justice First Fellows, Melissa Darnbrough and Nadia Hussain of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, also reported for openJustice on how families in the UK who open their doors to child relatives fleeing the camps of Calais can be penalised by stringent legal aid rules.

Pro bono: Wendy Hewstone sent a message to MPs via Legal Voice, asking them to “please stop telling us we don’t do enough pro bono”, as restrictive legal aid rules mean that we have no choice but to act for free sometimes.

Ian Brady: the legal challenge by Moors murderer Ian Brady to legal aid rules preventing his solicitor – who is not a member of the Law Society’s mental health panel – from representing him before the Mental Health Review Tribunal was unsuccessful. Brady’s application for permission to bring judicial review proceedings was refused by the High Court.

Birmingham pub bombings: the Birmingham Mail reported on a “new clash” between lawyers representing families of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings on the eve of a pre-inquest review hearing. The Ministry of Justice stated that the application for exceptional funding for representation at the inquest was incomplete, while KRW Law – acting for the families – said the MoJ’s intervention was “unwelcome and unnecessary” given that the Legal Aid Agency is a supposedly independent statutory authority, and that the LAA is “in receipt of a substantial application for Exceptional Case Funding”.

Young legal aid life: our latest column for Legal Voice on a day in the life of young legal aid lawyers was written by YLAL committee member Katherine Barnes about her experience acting in an appeal against a child’s education, health and care plan in which the child’s mother was unrepresented due to the withdrawal of legal aid for representation in education cases. The Secret Barrister blog also last month published a guest post by @DefenceGirl on the fallacy of the fat cat legal aid lawyer.

Other news: The Guardian reported on the opening of the Greater Manchester Law Centre this month, described by its founder John Nicholson as “not just a law centre … [but] a campaign for justice”. Its press release says the Greater Manchester Law Centre is “a campaign for properly funded legal aid” and is “fighting for a new generation of publicly funded social welfare lawyers”. Finally, congratulations to the first cohort of Justice First Fellows, who qualified as solicitors this month! The Justice First Fellowship scheme, organised by the Legal Education Foundation, funds training contracts and now pupillages in social welfare law at a number of different firms, law centres, charities and other organisations. You can read more about the Fellows on Legal Voice here.