Legal aid news - November 2017

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

LASPO review: In a memorandum presented to Parliament on 30 October 2017, the Ministry of Justice announced that the long-awaited review of the cuts to legal aid made by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) will soon begin. The Justice Secretary, David Lidington, confirmed that the government will publish its review by summer 2018.

The Autumn Budget: On 22 November, Philip Hammond presented the Autumn Budget to Parliament which announced further cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget. The Treasury committed to reduce the MoJ’s spending from £6.6bn in 2017/18 to £6bn by 2019/2020. The government confirmed that justice spending, which covers prisoners, probation and legal aid, will have faced a real-terms cut of 40% between 2010/11 and 2019/2020.

In the Law Society’s press release of the same date, vice-president Christina Blacklaws highlighted the impact on the budget cuts on legal aid and access to justice. She said “These cuts are having a real impact on the ability of the most vulnerable in our society to access justice. Whilst we acknowledge the government’s recent announcement to review LASPO, the significant cuts to the justice budget are still preventing effective justice for all.” The Shadow Lord Chancellor, Richard Burgon MP, went further, saying the cuts threaten to take the justice sector from “repeated crisis to full blown emergency.”

YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter wrote for The Justice Gap, expressing concern about the impact of further cuts to the MoJ budget on the LASPO review and access to justice generally. He said “The point is clear: legal rights are illusory if it is impossible to enforce them in practice. This applies to legal aid as it does for court and tribunal fees because if ordinary members of the public do not have the practical means of resolving disputes, respect for the rule of law and our democratic society is liable to break down.”

Legal aid cuts as a false economy: On 27 November, research published by the Law Society demonstrated a statistical link between getting early legal advice (much of which has been removed by LASPO) and resolving problems sooner. The research shows that, on average, 1 in 4 people who receive early professional legal advice had resolved their problem within 3-4 months. For those who did not receive early legal advice, it was not until 9 months after the issue had first occurred that 1 in 4 had resolved their issue. This means that simple issues can spiral and end up in court, meaning unnecessary costs to the taxpayer.

Christina Blacklaws, vice-president of the Law Society, called for early legal advice to be reinstated for housing and family cases. She said “the current situation is unsustainable. If early advice was available to those who need it, issues could be resolved before they worsen and become more costly for the individual - and the public purse.”  The issue of legal aid cuts as a false economy was widely reported by the Guardian, the Law Society Gazette and Buzzfeed.

Speaking at the annual Bar Conference, Sir Henry Brooke said “Any lasting solution has to be a cross-party political solution. MPs of all parties are now seeing their constituency surgeries flooded with requests for legal help because there is perceived to be nowhere else to go. They all know there is little they can do to help. Many members of the bar are being generous with their time and money, with walking, running, cycling, swimming and doing all sorts of other things to raise money for justice, but pro bono help will never be enough.”

Criminal legal aid cuts: The Law Society has announced that it will judicially review the government’s latest criminal legal aid cuts. Last month, the government confirmed it would reduce the cap on the number of claimable pages of prosecution evidence in Crown Court cases from 10,000 to 6,000, despite 97% of consultation responses opposing the proposal. The Law Society confirmed that it will be serving a pre-action protocol letter on the Ministry of Justice shortly.

In their press release vice-president Christina Blacklaws said: “The Law Society has consistently warned that this fragile criminal legal aid market cannot stand any further cuts. Any more will put access to justice in this country under even greater threat. We now have no choice but to take this significant step.”

Despite this, at a Westminster Hall debate on legal aid on 29 November 2017, Justice Minister Dominic Raab confirmed that the government will not back down. Further, an MoJ spokesperson told the Law Society Gazette “Defence solicitors do valuable work and we remunerate them fairly. We will defend any challenge vigorously.”

Legal aid for inquests: On 13 November 2017, Labour MP Ellie Reeves laid an Early Day Motion (EDM) before Parliament calling for the government to provide state funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests.

This comes after the final report of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice, the Hillsborough review by Bishop James Jones and the Angiolini review into deaths in police custody. Each of these reports called for families to receive free, non-means tested state funded legal representation when the state is funding representation for one of more public authorities.

YLAL has prepared a draft email you can send to your MP here  asking them to sign the EDM and support access to justice for bereaved families.

In his annual report, the Chief Coroner Mark Lucraft QC, echoes these concerns and also urges the government to fund legal representation for bereaved families. In a letter to Richard Burgon MP,  the shadow Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and Diane Abbott dated 6 November, Theresa May confirmed that as part of the LASPO review, the Lord Chancellor will consider the issue of publicly funded advice and representation at inquests.

Legal aid for prisoners: The government has withdrawn its application to the Supreme Court to appeal the Howard League’s successful challenge to legal aid cuts for prison law. This means that the Court of Appeal’s decision will stand and the government has confirmed that legal aid for prisoners will be restored by February 2018 in three main areas: pre-tariff reviews by the Parole Board, category-A reviews and decisions on placing inmates in close supervision centres. YLAL founder Laura Janes is quoted in this article on The Justice Gap about the news. Laura said: “One hopes that it’s part of a wider respect for the rule of law and an understanding of the importance of access to justice for everybody.”

Other news: The Law Society president, Joe Egan, confirmed to Roll on Friday that his firm pays its trainee solicitors less than the £18,547 recommended minimum. He said, “At the moment we have two trainee solicitors – and, yes, it’s true we pay below the recommended rate. I regret this". He went on to explain that his firm was badly affected by the cuts to legal aid.

The Junior Lawyers Division urged the president to reconsider this decision. In a statement, the JLD said “It is extremely disappointing that the president has chosen to disregard his own organisation’s guidance in relation to the minimum salary and chosen to pay his firm’s trainee solicitors less than the society recommends. The LASPO cuts affected the entire profession and many firms suffered as a result. Firms recognise that trainees are in a difficult position trying to repay university tuition fees, LPC fees and living expenses. Trainees in this category therefore rely on the protection afforded by the Law Society’s recommended minimum salary.”