Legal aid news - September 2016

After a brief summer break, YLAL's legal aid news is back to update you on all the latest developments in the world of access to justice during August and September 2016.

News from Westminster: the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee on 7 September and was asked about legal aid and access to the profession. Truss was asked by Labour MP Dr Rupa Huq about “the swingeing cuts to legal aid”. The Lord Chancellor said that we have “a generous system in this country”, before sidestepping a question about the promised review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Huq also questioned Truss on diversity in the legal profession, referring to research by YLAL about the salaries of junior legal aid lawyers and asking if the Lord Chancellor would consider reinstating the training contract grant scheme which was abolished by the Coalition government in 2010. Again, Truss did not directly answer the question.

Private Eye described Truss's performance before the Justice Committee as “wondrously, laughably, absurdly bad”, as reported by Legal Cheek. PoliticsHome also carried an article in which Shadow Justice Minister Jo Stevens described the session as “absolutely shambolic”. If you'd like to decide for yourself whether this criticism is fair, the transcript of the Justice Committee session is available here and you can watch it here. Meanwhile, YLAL committee member Philip Armitage used our column in Solicitors Journal – written prior to Truss appearing before the Justice Committee – to welcome the Lord Chancellor to her post.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool, Lord Bach announced that the review of legal aid which he is leading for the party will not publish its recommendations until summer 2017. The Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon, wrote for PoliticsHome about Labour's plans “to oppose what this government is doing and to set out to the country how we will undo the damage and restore access to justice”. The Law Society Gazette reported that Burgon also committed Labour to a manifesto pledge to increase legal aid spending and abolish employment tribunal fees. Following the party's conference, John Hyde argued in the Law Society Gazette that Labour is finally doing itself justice.

Politeia event: the free-market thinktank Politeia held an event in London on 14 September featuring former Minister for Legal Aid Shailesh Vara and the outgoing director of legal aid commissioning and strategy at the Legal Aid Agency, Hugh Barrett. As this event fell on the second Wednesday of September, rather than holding our regular monthly meeting in London, we encouraged YLAL members to attend this event, which also featured an interesting intervention from the floor by the Liberal Democrat former Justice Minister Lord McNally.

McNally said that “bandying about the term 'access to justice' is really quite fraudulent” and criticised legal aid lawyers for “looking like 1970s trade unionists” when protesting outside the Ministry of Justice. YLAL member Henry Gaster-Evans provided this report, and our co-chair Ollie wrote about the event for The Justice Gap here. The Law Society Gazette also reported on the comments by Lord McNally and Shailesh Vara. Mark George QC also penned this reply to Lord McNally, and Steve Cornforth said he “will not shut up about access to justice”. And neither will we.

Lib Dems regret legal aid cuts: at their party conference in Brighton, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion of regret at the “severe and lasting consequences” of “dramatic and disproportionate” cuts to legal aid made by the Coalition government. The full conference motion on Restoring Access to Justice is available here and was reported by the Law Society Gazette.

LAPG Conference: the Legal Aid Practitioners Group annual conference will be held in Leeds on 7 October 2016 and discounted tickets are available for YLAL members here. YLAL will be hosting two breakout sessions at the conference, on careers in legal aid and public law. The full conference programme is here. It is a fantastic opportunity to meet fellow legal aid lawyers and learn about burning issues in access to justice.

Young legal aid life: Mary-Rachel McCabe, a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, journalist, YLAL member and all-round #legalaidhero was the first contributor to a new column for Legal Voice about the life of young legal aid lawyers – you can read Mary-Rachel's account of a day in her life here. If you would like to contribute to this regular column for Legal Voice by YLAL members, please contact us at ylalinfo@gmail.com.

Hillsborough Law: following the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquests, campaigners have proposed a new Public Authorities Accountability Bill which would introduce a public law duty of candour and a duty to assist enquiries and police and judicial investigations. You can read all about the 'Hillsborough Law', including the draft bill, on the campaign website here. YLAL Liverpool co-ordinator Siobhan Taylor-Ward also wrote this great article for The Justice Gap about the proposed bill, described as “a fitting legacy for the 96”.

Legal aid for inquests: the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has refused to offer public funding for legal representation to relatives of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, along the lines of the funding provided to the Hillsborough families by her predecessor, Theresa May. Rudd did, however, pledge her support for an application to the Legal Aid Agency.

Court and tribunal fees: the government confirmed that it will proceed with plans to drastically increase fees in the immigration and asylum tribunals, as reported by The Guardian. Fees will rise by up to 500%, despite the overwhelmingly negative responses to the government's consultation (including by YLAL, here). Lord Justice Jackson also questioned the government's policy of imposing steep rises in fees while withdrawing public funding from the court system, as reported by The Guardian.

Exceptional funding: the Law Society Gazette reported that applications for exceptional case funding – the legal aid 'safety net' for cases which are out of scope – soared during the second quarter of the year, with just over half of applications granted.

The Archers: the Law Society released this statement on the family court proceedings in Radio 4 drama The Archers, stating that the custody battle highlights the unfairness of legal aid eligibility rules as abusive partner Rob could qualify for legal aid, while his wife Helen would not.

Other news: in our September column for Legal Action magazine, YLAL co-chairs Ollie and Rachel reflected on the change in leadership of the government and the impact this could have on justice policy. The former director of JUSTICE, Roger Smith, described the Legal Aid Agency as a “constitutional monstrosity” and criticised its “dubious independence” in this article for the Law Society Gazette. Meanwhile, the Gazette also reported on the departure from the LAA of its director of legal aid commissioning and strategy, Hugh Barrett. Finally, the Law Society's head of legal aid, Richard Miller, wrote this piece for Legal Voice on his experiences in working on the political side of legal aid for 16 years.