Legal aid news - April and May 2019

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from April and May 2019.

Legal aid for Shamima Begum: On 16 April 2019, various newspapers reported that lawyers for Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl who travelled to Syria to join ISIS at the age of 15, had been granted legal aid to challenge the Home Office’s decision to revoke her British citizenship.

This prompted further demonization of legal aid and legal aid lawyers in the media and amongst politicians. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the idea Begum could receive taxpayer funding to challenge the decision to remove her citizenship made him “very uncomfortable”. He went on to say: “She knew the choices she was making, so I think we made decisions about her future based on those choices.”

YLAL’s statement on this issue can be found here. In summary, YLAL staunchly believes that public funding should be available to all those who cannot afford to pay for their own legal advice and representation. Access to justice is a fundamental human right, and a crucial component of the rule of law in our democratic society. In order to make access to justice effective and equal, legal aid must be available to all – subject to appropriate financial means tests – irrespective of any crimes of which they are accused. This is particularly important in cases such as this, where a British citizen has had her citizenship revoked.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told reporters: “She is a British national and therefore she has that right, like any of us do, to apply for legal aid if she has a problem. She has legal rights, just like anybody else does. The whole point of legal aid is that if you’re facing a prosecution then you’re entitled to be represented and that’s a fundamental rule of law, a fundamental point in any democratic society.”

Legal aid for victims of domestic abuse: On 28 May 2019, in a letter to The Guardian in response to an article calling for an inquiry into the family court’s treatment of victims of domestic violence and their children, Law Society President Christina Blacklaws linked legal aid cuts to these “failures in the system.”

Blacklaws, a former family legal aid solicitor, said “The government’s cuts to legal aid in 2012 have left many victims of abuse unrepresented in court, often unable to argue their case. Updating the legal aid means test and reinstating legal aid for early advice will help to ensure that domestic abuse is identified at the earliest possible point and both victims and their children receive the access to justice they deserve.”

Legal aid for victims of discrimination: The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have now published their report into access to legal aid for victims of discrimination. The report can be found here. YLAL Londoners will recall that the EHRC spoke about this issue at the November meeting, together with the Disability Law Association.

In summary, the report finds that  people are facing unnecessary barriers to justice and vulnerable individuals are not being supported to bring discrimination claims. It also examines the effectiveness of the mandatory telephone gateway and makes recommendations to government.

David Isaac, chair of the EHRC, said: “Legal aid was specifically set up to ensure that those who have been wronged, but cannot afford their own legal representation, can access justice. The threat of legal action is a powerful deterrent for perpetrators and makes it clear that society will not tolerate injustice. Challenging such complex issues as discrimination should never be a David vs Goliath battle, and the system is failing if individuals are left to fight cases themselves at an employment tribunal or in court.”

Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: On 22 May 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Professor Philip Alston published his report following a visit to the UK in November 2018.

The UN Special Rapporteur states that legal aid has been "dramatically reduced" in England and Wales since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The report notes that the number of cases funded by civil legal aid "declined by a staggering 82% between 2010-11 and 2017-18”. The report concluded that "many poor people are unable to effectively claim and enforce their rights".

YLAL’s statement in response to the report can be found here. In summary, we call on the Ministry of Justice and the government as a whole to give serious consideration to the findings of this report and to act accordingly to urgently address extreme poverty, protect human rights and improve access to justice in the UK.

Wellbeing and mental health: Claiming Space, co-founded by YLAL’s former co-chair Rachel Francis, was featured in April’s edition of CILEX’s Regulation Matters magazine. You can read the article, “Carrying a heavy caseload” here. The article gives examples of ways to cope with vicarious trauma from working with clients who have been traumatised themselves.

BPTC: The Inns of Court College of Advocacy (“ICCA”) has announced that it has applied to the Bar Standards Board to be authorised to deliver a new Bar Course at 30% of the cost of the BPTC.

If approved, the course will be split between two parts. Part one has a guide time of between 12-16 weeks to complete and there will be an opportunity for students to exit the course after this point with no further financial commitment if they decide not to continue.

Part two of the course will run for 20 weeks, with intake scheduled twice yearly, and will be undertaken in person within the precincts of the Inns of Court. It will be dedicated to skills teaching, preparing students for potential future pupillages and a career at the Bar. There will be practical advocacy courses including essential specialist sessions on vulnerable witness advocacy, youth justice proceedings and expert witness handling.

The ICCA will charge £12,225 overall which will be split between £1,000 for part one and £11,225 for part two.

Derek Wood QC, Chair of the ICCA Governors said: “We are delighted to be announcing this new Bar Course, which will provide students with greater flexibility, high standards of teaching and less financial commitment upfront. The course will be offered on a ‘not-for-profit’ basis and will cost around thirty percent less than London BPTCs presently on offer.”

Criminal barristers planned strike: On 24 May, the Criminal Bar Association announced that it would ballot its members on a proposed national walkout on 1 July in protest at low fees, which they say can be as low as £46.50 for a day in court.

Chris Henley QC, the chair of the CBA, told members, “If you vote for action the responsibility lies solely with the senior management of the Crown Prosecution Service and government ministers who […] claim to care about victims of crime yet have failed to intervene. The CBA understands its responsibility to the profession, and to the wider public, to safeguard and champion the highest possible standards in the criminal courts, but this requires publicly funded lawyers to be able to see a sustainable and viable financial future ahead of them. It is astonishing and shameful how wilfully and casually those with the power to choose are risking complete professional collapse.”

CBA members voted in favour of the action by an overwhelming 95%. Following this, the government made a proposal with changes in an attempt to prevent strike action. This included immediate increases to prosecution fees pending the full review of fees that is due to report by 30 September 2019. In respect of defence fees, the government made a commitment to accelerate the review of the Advocates’ Graduates Fee Scheme (AGFS) in high volumes of evidence cases, cracked trials and payment for unused material, leading to them reporting in November 2019.

This proposal has been considered by the CBA, who have advised their members to accept the proposal. The ballot is currently ongoing and the result will be announced on 1 July. If the government’s proposal is not accepted, the start of the action initially proposed for 1 July will take place on 8 July.

Unpaid internships: 9 King’s Bench Walk (9KBW), a barristers chambers in London, has been criticised for offering a six month unpaid internship for aspiring barristers. The internship offered law graduates the opportunity to gain “real world legal experience” and “increase their knowledge of substantive areas of law”.

YLAL told the Telegraph that we consider full-time, long-term, unpaid internships to be unacceptable and a significant barrier to access to the profession, and that any chambers or firm relying on unpaid interns is likely to be having serious negative effects on social mobility in the sector. It inevitably excludes those unable to financially support themselves during the course of the internship and prevents them gaining precious experience.

A spokesperson for the Bar Standards Board said “The BSB is concerned by the practice of offering long unpaid internships which may hinder equality of access to the bar since many students simply cannot afford to work for long periods without pay. We expect all chambers to have policies which promote equality and diversity and to operate fair recruitment and selection processes.”

Launch of a Legal Sector Workers Trade Union: On 20 April, the Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), a new branch of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, was launched. LSWU was founded to bring together all those in the legal sector including paralegals, solicitors, barristers, receptionists, interns, personal assistants, administrative staff, cleaners and security guards.

The UVW has already organised walkouts and strikes among cleaners, security staff and receptionists at the Ministry of Justice over demands for the London Living Wage. The LSWU will oppose what it says is the sector’s “poverty pay” and inequality and we understand that it will campaign for the restoration of legal aid that was cut under austerity.

Prominent legal aid lawyers are backing the new union. Michael Mansfield QC told the Guardian, “This initiative is long overdue. I was involved in an earlier effort in the 1970s which was far less ambitious and did not survive. This has the advantage of a far wider constituency of workers who are constantly at risk of exploitation and marginalisation despite their critical role.”

You can learn more about the union and join here.