Legal aid news - June 2016

Away from the EU referendum and its political fallout, we bring you the latest news relating to legal aid and access to justice.

Brexit: actually, just a quick word on this (sorry) – in the brave new world of life after the EU referendum vote, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced that he would run for leadership of the Conservative Party (before failing to make the final two) and both the Shadow Justice Secretary and Shadow Attorney General – Lord Falconer and Karl Turner, respectively – have resigned from the shadow cabinet as part of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s mutiny against Jeremy Corbyn.

Lord Bach, who is chairing Labour’s Commission on Access to Justice, resigned from his frontbench role in the House of Lords in May 2016 following his election as Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire, but his review of legal aid is continuing its work. We understand that the Bach Commission on Access to Justice intends to publish an interim report by the time of the Labour Party conference in late September 2016.

Justice Select Committee report on court fees: the Justice Select Committee published its report on court and tribunal fees on 17 June, concluding that major changes are urgently needed to restore an acceptable level of access to the employment tribunals system. There has been a reduction of about 70% in the number of employment tribunal cases following the introduction of fees, and the Committee found there is “no doubt that the clear majority of the decline is attributable to fees”. The Committee also considered family and immigration fees – you can read the full report here, a summary by Rights Info here and the Guardian piece about the report here.

Legal aid statistics: the latest quarterly legal aid statistics, for the period from January to March 2016, were released by the Legal Aid Agency recently, and have been helpfully summarised by the Law Centres Federation here. The unsurprising picture of life after LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) continues to be that fewer and fewer people are getting help for their legal problems. Legal Voice reported on the statistics demonstrating the ongoing shrinkage of the civil legal aid scheme here.

Exceptional Case Funding and Merits Test: the Court of Appeal judgment – covered in our last legal aid news update here – was summarised by Legal Aid Handbook, which did not find the views of the majority wholly persuasive. The Court of Appeal judgment is available here and was reported by the Law Society Gazette here. We are waiting to hear whether the judgment will be appealed to the Supreme Court, following the 2:1 majority decision of the Court of Appeal that the exceptional funding scheme is not unlawful. Legal Aid Handbook subsequently reported the news that the Legal Aid Agency will no longer consider applications for funding in cases where the merits are considered to be poor or borderline, following the Court of Appeal judgment in the exceptional funding case.  

Court of Protection: the Legal Aid Agency has conceded that legal aid funding is available to P (the subject of proceedings in the Court of Protection) to bring a claim for damages under the Human Rights Act for both ongoing and historic breaches, as reported by the Court of Protection Handbook.

Solicitors Qualifying Examination: the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) decided to extend the timetable for making a final decision on whether to introduce its proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The SRA will now gather more evidence through a second consultation, which will take place this autumn. The SRA press release is available here, and was reported by Solicitors Journal, Legal Futures and Legal Cheek.

‘Hillsborough law’: Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham called on the government to adopt a ‘Hillsborough law’ to ensure that bereaved families have equivalent legal funding as the police to make their case at inquests, as reported by the BBC and the Guardian. Burnham said: “We must call time on the uneven playing field at inquests where public bodies spend public money like water on hiring the best lawyers when ordinary families have to scratch around for whatever they can get”.

UN Report: the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published a report on the UK’s implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this month, as reported by the UK Human Rights Blog. The Committee was “concerned that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice, in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits”. The Committee was also “seriously concerned about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”.

LALY Awards: 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.

Other news: prison law barrister Flo Krause spoke to the Guardian about how legal aid cuts have forced her out of her career at the bar. In announcing her departure from the profession, she said: “I am sick of the legal aid cuts, the lack of access to justice, the systemic delays for my clients, the deprivations of liberty that have become routine where nobody is outraged anymore. I am sick of the paternalistic and moralistic lifer system, the begging for release, the cruel and inhuman treatment of indeterminate sentence prisoners, the middle-class judging of people who end up in the system and the endless punishment of traumatised people. I am going to peddle my wares elsewhere.”

Jon Robins, editor of The Justice Gap, wrote for politics.co.uk about how “legal aid cuts have ripped the heart out of our justice system”, while Miranda Grell told Media Diversified why we should all care about the decimation of legal aid. Martha Spurrier, a shortlisted candidate for Legal Aid Barrister award at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards, the incoming director of Liberty and all-round YLAL hero, told the Guardian that “human rights will be the fight of our generation” and that halting repeal of the Human Rights Act will be her top priority at Liberty.

In our latest regular column for Legal Action magazine, YLAL co-chairs Ollie and Rachel wrote about the common ground between legal aid lawyers, teachers and doctors, all professions providing a public service which have opposed damaging cuts and reforms imposed by the government in recent years. Finally, former Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke, who is currently one of the members of Lord Bach’s Access to Justice Commission, is continuing to set out the history of legal aid on his fantastic blog.