Legal aid news - July 2016

We bring you the latest news in the world of legal aid and access to justice, with this update covering July and the beginning of August. 

Open letter to Theresa May: at our meeting about Campaigning for Access to Justice in London on 13 July, we decided to send an open letter to the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, about legal aid. Together with Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Legal Action Group, we called on the government to review the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) objectively, fairly and as soon as possible. Our letter was published by The Guardian, referred to in The Times daily legal news update The Brief and reported by Legal Cheek.

Residence test: the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the residence test case brought by Public Law Project. The court had declared on 18 April 2016 that the government’s proposed residence test for civil legal aid was ultra vires the enabling statute and therefore unlawful. The residence test would – subject to limited exceptions – have limited legal aid to people who were lawfully resident in the UK and had been so lawfully resident for a period of 12 months. The judgment was reported by the Law Society Gazette, Legal Aid Handbook and the UK Human Rights Blog.

Legal aid deserts for housing advice: the Law Society called on the government to urgently fill legal aid “advice deserts” for housing issues, publishing an interactive map showing the scale of the problem. Responding to this, Shelter said the map “provides a stark illustration of how little free legal advice is now available to people facing serious issues with their housing”. You can sign up to the Law Society’s social media Thunderclap to raise awareness of this campaign on 22 August here. At the time of writing, the Thunderclap has a social reach of just over 300,000 people.

News from Westminster: After Theresa May became Prime Minister, she appointed Liz Truss as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Oliver Heald QC, a barrister, was appointed Minister for Courts and Justice, a position which includes responsibility for legal aid policy. Truss and Heald took over their positions from Michael Gove and Shailesh Vara respectively. Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon gave the Huffington Post his assessment of the Conservative record on justice, concluding that he believes the view of publicly-funded legal services as the ‘fourth pillar of the welfare state’ should inform our approach to legal aid.

Ellie Butler: the Daily Mail and The Guardian reported on the £1.5m in legal aid granted to the parents of Ellie Butler in family and criminal proceedings. The Daily Mail described this as a “blank cheque” given to Ben Butler to fund his lawyers in his “warped” battle for custody of his daughter. However, the Transparency Project website published this excellent rebuttal article explaining the problems with the report by the Daily Mail. YLAL member John Briant also superbly took the media to task for its reporting of the story in The Guardian, describing legal aid as a “national institution, like the NHS”.

Hillsborough: in our regular column for Solicitors Journal, YLAL committee member Siobhan Taylor-Ward wrote about the priceless experience as a young lawyer working for three years on the historic Hillsborough inquest. Siobhan concluded that, despite the many obstacles for junior lawyers and problems in the legal aid sector, “through perseverance and taking a principled stand for a cause which you believe in, it is possible to be part of a change for the better”.

Legal aid for inquests: the Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton QC, used an interview with The Guardian to call for legal aid to be provided to bereaved families at inquests where public bodies are involved. The Chief Coroner said this is “partly a question of equality of arms”, but also “helps the coroner who might otherwise be bending over backwards to help the family”. Louise Brookes, whose brother died at Hillsborough, urged the government to guarantee legal aid for the families of the Birmingham bomb victims.

LALY Awards: although this was also included in our June legal aid news update, the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards 2016 (LALYs) took place on 7 July 2016, with the Outstanding Achievement award given to all of the lawyers involved in acting for the families of the deceased in the Hillsborough Inquests. You can read a report of the LALYs award ceremony on Legal Voice here and all of the tweets from the evening using the hashtag #LALY16.

APPG on Legal Aid: the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, which YLAL and Legal Aid Practitioners Group co-ordinate and which is chaired by Keir Starmer MP, met in the Houses of Parliament on 12 July. The then-Minister for Legal Aid, Shailesh Vara MP, was due to speak but had to pull out, and the meeting was therefore addressed by YLAL co-chair Ollie, Steve Hynes of Legal Action Group and Nimrod Ben-Cnaan of the Law Centres Network. The meeting focussed on the latest quarterly legal aid statistics released by the Legal Aid Agency and referred to in our previous news update here.

Contingent Legal Aid Fund: the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives have set up a joint working group to consider the idea of a contingent legal aid fund, as reported by Legal Cheek.

Social mobility: Baroness Hale, the deputy president of the Supreme Court and therefore Britain’s most senior female judge, told The Telegraph that legal aid cuts will make it increasingly hard to earn a living through legal aid and therefore help public school boys get to the top. Meanwhile, Lawyer2B reported that BPP has dropped the Legal Aid Scholarship which it introduced after lobbying from Laura Wrixon, now a trainee at Simpson Millar.

Court and tribunal fees: Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith joined Jeremy Corbyn in pledging to “restore access to justice” by abolishing employment tribunal fees, as reported by the Law Society Gazette. Government proposals to significantly increase fees in the immigration and asylum tribunals were strongly criticised by a group of eminent lawyers in this letter to The Guardian.

Other news: Abuse survivor Kat Ward spoke to The Guardian about her unsuccessful fight to secure legal aid and her call for the government to set up a legal aid fund specifically for survivors of abuse. Sir Henry Brooke, one of the members of Labour’s Access to Justice Commission, continued his excellent blogging with this post on the history of legal aid from 1945-2010.