Legal aid news - June 2019

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

YLAL’s #TakeYourMPToWork campaign: We have joined forces with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (APPG) to launch a brand new campaign! The campaign urges junior lawyers to take their MPs to work, so that MPs can experience reality of life at the legal aid frontline. MPs are  encouraged to visit law centres and legal advice clinics to get hands-on experience of the realities that our clients are facing.  You can read more about the campaign on our website here.

MPs have been asked to take part through social media – members are encouraged to contact their MP about the campaign. Once the MP has confirmed their interest, YLAL and APPG will try to to find a placement in a local law centre or advice clinic. At the time of writing, over 35 MPs had signed up and we are hoping that many more will get involved.

The former Minister for Legal Aid, Paul Maynard MP, has taken part. Paul spent the day at the Fylde Coast and Legal Centre in his constituency of Blackpool. He has blogged about his experience here. He sat in on the drop in session that ran all afternoon in which the lawyers advised a wide range of people, assisting them to resolve their issues. He commented, “The main take away for me was that it is so important for people to get the right type of support, and, crucially, at the right time.”

The campaign has received media coverage in Legal Voice, the Law Gazette, Legal Cheek and Politics Home.

Homelessness lawyers struggle in a legal aid “culture of refusal”: On 26 June 2019, the Guardian reported that, despite the rising numbers of those forced to sleep on the streets, applications for legal aid in cases involving homelessness have fallen by 34% in the past six years. Lawyers who work in this area are therefore forced to take on cases at their own financial risk, within an environment described to have a “culture of refusal”.

Jo Underwood, managing solicitor at Shelter, a homelessness charity, explained that the Legal Aid Agency is “blocking access to justice and making perverse decisions about the merits of cases in situations where the courts, the solicitors and the barristers involved all agree there are good reasons for the matter to be heard in court.” Simon Mullings, a solicitor at Edwards Duthie Shamash, stated that the “lack of legal aid is contributing to homelessness”.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) told the Guardian that they have recently announced a series of pilots offering support for those with social welfare issues like housing. There is also an additional £5 million in funding, they explain, that will go towards an innovation fund, the aim of which is to expand the services already on offer and to raise awareness of the legal support that is available to those who find themselves in such a situation.

Legal aid cuts harming discrimination victims: On 19 June 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the findings of their inquiry into the provision of legal aid for victims of discrimination. The report found that not a single discrimination at work case received legal aid funding for representation between 2013 and 2018 and that access to justice has been limited for individuals who are unable to challenge unacceptable behaviour with proper legal support.

Since the introduction of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, there has been a considerable concern regarding the availability of legal aid in cases involving discrimination in the workplace.

In response to the complaints made by the EHRC’s report, a MoJ spokesperson stated that: “our legal aid support action plan has already committed to addressing many of the challenges set out in this report. This includes reinstating immediate access to face-to-face legal advice in discrimination cases, reviewing legal aid means testing and improving the exceptional case funding scheme.”

Criminal barristers call off one-day walkout after pay offer: After years of growing dissatisfaction over pay, and the imminent threat of a strike following a vote earlier in June, criminal barristers have voted to accept a pay rise and call off the strike that was scheduled for 1 July.

Earlier this month, on 10 June, when deciding on whether strike action should be taken in response to the inadequate fees for criminal barristers, a large proportion of practicing barristers turned out to vote, roughly 80%. Out of those barristers who voted, almost 95% voted in favour of the Criminal Bar Association’s (CBA) proposal for strike action over inadequate fees. The Law Society President, Christina Blacklaws, spoke of the importance in discussing the issue of underfunding in the criminal justice system; defence solicitors have been waiting for an increase in their fees for 20 years. She stressed, “we have put forward a solid evidence base to convince the Treasury of the need for additional funding but patience among the profession is running thin. The review into criminal legal aid fees may be too little, too late”, already “the criminal justice system is on the brink of collapse.”

The chair and vice-chair of the CBA, Chris Henley QC and Caroline Goodwin GC respectively, highlighted that “in the background a great deal of activity has been going on” and the level of engagement from all those parties involved had been effective, seeing the government and CPS engage in discussions weekly. They added, “we are hopeful that there will be a positive outcome to these discussions, which if successful would result in substantial new investment.”

A representative from the MoJ responded, explaining that they have “recently committed to a full review of legal aid payment schemes and are already engaging with a wide range of legal professionals on this. This was followed with an offer for increased pay in the event that the strike was cancelled.

On 28 June 2019, a ballot was held to determine the next course of action, carrying the voices of the 2607 that voted. The vote in favour of calling off the strike was won by a margin with 61 percent in favour of accepting the pay rise. This marks the first significant pay rise in 20 years for those working in the criminal justice sector.

Chris Henley, when speaking about the ballot’s result, commented that, “this would not have happened without your examples, and the relentless campaign waged on your behalf. You have had nothing for almost 20 years; now you will.”

Emily Dugan wins the Private Eye Paul Foot Award 2019: On a more celebratory note, Emily Dugan, a Buzzfeed reporter, was awarded the Private Eye Paul Foot Award 2019 in recognition for her journalism which exposed failings in the justice system. Her work has uncovered Government officials exerting undue influence over decisions to deny legal aid to individuals bringing claims against the government and a leaked Ministry of Justice report featuring stark warnings about Defendants representing themselves in the criminal courts. Padraig Reidy, one of the judges, commented that the journalists this year were “inspirational in their determination and insight.” You can find her work here.

Droughts and deserts: On 12 June 2019, barrister Dr Jo Wilding, published a report on the immigration legal aid market. The report found that there are many areas in the UK where there is only one legal aid immigration and asylum lawyer, or none at all. Alongside this, Dr Wilding highlighted the disparity between the fixed fee asylum work is done for and the actual cost even just a simple case needs in order to that the work is performed correctly. Consequently, good quality work is causing solicitors and barristers to lose money on every case. Subsidy is essential to ensure financial viability, which is provided by privately paid work or other areas of law that are more profitable. Wider charity or grant funding can also offer desperately needed financial resources. However, Wilding stresses that subsidy cannot meet all the costs to fund this work and so, work is either done cheaply or in a limited capacity.

This has led to advice deserts: areas where individuals struggle to find a lawyer who can take on their case. Even in areas where there are numerous providers, there is no capacity to take on new cases. Refugee and Migrant Justice is just one example of a provider who tried to take on more cases while still providing quality work, but has been forced into financial difficulties.

Despite the LASPO post-implementation review, published earlier this year, concluding that the market is “sustainable at present”, austerity has been monumental to the strained availability of legal aid. Simply put, supply is not matching demand. Read the full report here.

YLAL is grateful to volunteer Freya Oldaker for this news update.