Legal aid news - April 2018

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from April 2018.

Criminal legal aid cuts: A significant proportion of the criminal bar are not undertaking any new publicly funded criminal legal aid work from 1 April. The action has been reported widely in the media, including in the Guardian, the Financial Times and Buzzfeed News. The action is in response to changes to the way in which criminal legal aid work by advocates is remunerated under the reformed Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) which came into force on 1 April.

On 18 April, over 100 lawyers gathered outside the Ministry of Justice to declare that it was 'time for justice'. Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, told the crowd “this government seems to think of justice as ‘out of sight, out of mind.”’ YLAL co-chair, Katherine Barnes, said “the justice system does not operate in a vacuum. It requires skilled and professional solicitors and barristers to work in it - we are the petrol that keeps the engine running. Rights cannot be properly upheld without this fuel … The justice system in this country is already gasping for breath. Unless there is serious investment and radical changes it will die.”

On 23 April, the Criminal Bar Association and the leaders of the circuits issued a joint statement asking for an urgent meeting with the government to discuss their proposals in respect of AGFS. They said “This is an issue of principle and survival. It is now absolutely clear to us that this government does not intend to invest in criminal justice at all. In fact it intends to make more cuts. We will not see any change for the better if we don’t fight for it … We want to resolve this. All of us do. We ask for principled investment in our great system. The government must make a priority for justice at this critical time in our history. If it does not, the consequences will resonate for years to come. If it does then at last we may see a half to the crisis in the system.”

In an interview with the Guardian Lady Justice Hallett, the vice-president of the criminal division of the court of appeal, said that the English justice system is hanging on to its reputation as the best in the world by its “fingernails” due to the government’s failure to provide adequate funding. Lady Justice Hallett called for the entire criminal and civil justice system to be supported, saying a bias towards specialist commercial courts, which bring in lucrative, international business to London, could impact the quality of the entire system as a whole. She said, “We have to make sure that the entire system is the best in the world, but we are hanging on by our fingernails.”

On 17 April, the Law Society warned that criminal defence solicitors could become extinct. They used data on the average ages of criminal defence solicitors to produce a heat map showing that  across Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, West Wales and Mid Wales, over 60% of criminal law solicitors are aged over 50 years old and in in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under 35. Joe Egan, President of the Law Society, said “The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario; criminal duty solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession, and government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering the field of criminal defence work. If this trend continues, in five to ten years’ time there could be insufficient criminal defence solicitors in many regions, leaving people in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.”

LASPO review: On 17 April, Matthew Shelley, a deputy director at the Ministry of Justice, told the APPG on legal aid that the LASPO review team hope to finalise the review by the end of the year. Justice Secretary David Gauke stressed that he hoped the review would not slip into 2019. The Law Society Gazette’s coverage can be found here.

Legal aid for housing advice: Labour has pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. This was announced by the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, at the “Legal Aid Future” hosted by the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) on 20 April. He said, “Everyone should have the right to a safe and decent home. But the withdrawal of legal advice in many housing cases has weakened tenants’ rights, which can only benefit rogue landlords. Restoring this legal aid for housing advice will help tens of thousands of people resolve their housing issues and regain their housing rights. Prevention is better than cure and this policy will help stop problems like damp, leaking roofs or faulty electrics from spiralling out of control and causing tenants even greater misery.”

YLAL vice-chair, Siobhan Taylor-Ward (also a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at GMLC), joined Richard Burgon on the panel. Siobhan welcomed the announcement on behalf of YLAL but called on Labour to implement the recommendations from the Bach report on access to justice in full in their next manifesto, including by pledging to reinstate early legal advice for debt, welfare benefits and immigration, as well as housing.

LASPO removed housing advice from the scope of legal aid. Under LASPO’s guidelines, legal advice on housing is not available for disrepair issues unless they have become so serious that they are affecting a resident’s health. A Citizens Advice study has estimated that every pound of legal aid spent on housing advice could potentially save the state £2.34. Labour estimates its housing advice pledge would cost £9m a year.

The announcement was widely covered by the national and legal press, including the Guardian, Law Society Gazette and the Justice Gap.

The Windrush scandal: The Windrush scandal, in which it was revealed that the Home Office had threatened the children of Commonwealth citizens who arrived before 1973 with removal – and may have unlawfully removed dozens of people from the country – if they could not prove their right to remain in the UK, has exacerbated the need for the availability of legal aid in all immigration cases. Fiona Bawden writing for the Guardian said “The difficulties … will have been made immeasurably worse by the fact that legal aid was scrapped for immigration cases in April 2013. People were left with nowhere to go for help, just at the time the Home Office application process was being made more onerous and the penalties for failing to be able to prove status were becoming more severe.” The full article can be read here.

Legal aid for victims of trafficking: On 16 April, the Lord Chancellor conceded a judicial review claim against the refusal of legal aid to a victim of trafficking, the day before the final hearing was due to be heard in the High Court. The Lord Chancellor accepted that civil legal services provided to assist a victim of trafficking to obtain a “Conclusive Grounds” (a formal recognition from the Home Office that an individual is, on the balance of probabilities, a victim of trafficking) is in scope under LASPO, where the legal work is in relation to a determination of whether the victim should be granted leave to enter or remain in the UK. Legal Action Group helpfully summarised the case here before the government conceded.

Junior Lawyers Division Conference: On 29 April, the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division held their annual conference. Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, was the keynote speaker and she was extremely supportive about access to justice and legal aid. She acknowledged that legal aid cuts, taking out of scope of entire areas of legal aid is having an impact on access to justice. She also said, “Campaigning for access to justice is not self-serving, it’s client serving.” YLAL committee members Anna Jemmison and Tara Mulcair also gave a policy update on civil and criminal legal aid.