Legal aid news - March 2018

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

YLAL Social Mobility Report: On 13 March, we launched our new social mobility report – “Social Mobility in a Time of Austerity”. The report was launched online and at 6 events throughout the country in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield.

The report identifies three key issues with social mobility in the legal aid sector:

  • Debt combined with low salaries is a barrier to the profession: 72% of respondents have or will have debt over £15,000 as a result of their education and 26.5% will have over £35,000 of debt.
  • Unpaid work experience is a barrier to the profession: 13.5% of respondents described unpaid work experience as a significant barrier to entry into the profession.
  • Stress, lack of support and juggling legal aid work with other responsibilities are affecting retention in the profession: 21% of respondents said this is their greatest challenge.

The report sets out a series of recommendations to address these issues including that: mandatory minimum salaries for trainee solicitors are reintroduced by the SRA; organisations adopt our work experience charter; and, improved welfare initiatives are introduced. We will be launching campaigns in relation to a number of these recommendations in the coming months.

The full report can be found here. A huge thank-you to our Vice-Chair, Siobhan Taylor-Ward, and everyone on the Social Mobility sub-group for all their hard work on this report.

 “The Fight for Social Justice: Young Lawyers Making Change” conference: On 3 March, YLAL co-hosted a conference with the Public Law Project and the Legal Education Foundation's Justice First Fellows which was attended by over 100 junior and aspiring social justice lawyers. We heard from a number of inspiring speakers, including Dr Laura Janes, founder of YLAL, Louise Christian and Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty. The conference held sessions on legal updates, self-care, campaigning, legal aid applications, how to become a social justice lawyer and strategic litigation.

Martha Spurrier closed the conference by talking about the importance of hope when pursuing a career as a social justice lawyer. She said, “To make that hope real, you have to really work. If you can be both hopeful and hardworking, then you will change the world for the better.”

Criminal legal aid: Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted in favour of action in response to changes to the way in which criminal legal aid work by advocates is remunerated under the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which comes into force on 1 April 2018, and will result in a significant overall cut in fees.

In a poll by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), 90% of its members backed direct action from 1 April 2018. This means that thousands of criminal defence barristers will not be undertaking any new publicly funded criminal work from 1 April 2018.

The CBA has called on the Ministry of Justice to delay the implementation of the reformed AGFS pending further consultation as to its impact on the criminal bar and the criminal justice system.

Angela Rafferty QC, Chair of the CBA, said “Lack of funding in the criminal justice system has resulted in near-collapse. The public accounts committee in 2016 said the criminal justice system was at breaking point. In my view it is now broken. We have to fix it … For years the criminal justice system has been held together by the professionalism and goodwill of judges, court staff and lawyers, but the supply of sticking plaster has run out … The profession’s fees have been relentlessly cut for over 20 years by nearly 40%.”

The strike action has been widely reported by the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, The Times and Buzzfeed. YLAL’s statement in support of the action can be found here.

On 22 March, Jeremy Corbyn laid EDM 111 before Parliament, calling on the AGFS changes to be withdrawn. The EDM has been signed by 91 Labour MPs and can be found here. We would encourage all members to contact their MP encouraging them to sign the EDM.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said “We are extremely disappointed with the position the CBA has taken … Our reforms will reflect the actual work done in court, representing better value for the tax payer, and will replace an archaic scheme under which barristers were able to bill by pages of evidence. We greatly value the work of criminal advocates and will continue to engage with the bar moving forwards.”

YLAL and CBA CrowdJustice campaign: On 27 March, YLAL and the Criminal Bar Association (“CBA”) launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise public awareness of the broken criminal justice system to provide every MP in England and Wales with a copy of our Social Mobility Report and the Secret Barrister’s book, Stories of the Law and How it is Broken.

The crowdfunding page can be found here. The campaign has been incredibly successful, raising £10,000 in the first 3 days! Now the CBA wants to raise funds to create a fighting fund for criminal justice to continue to protect our criminal justice system and build a campaign to educate the public on the crisis.

The Secret Barrister has pledged royalties from this campaign to the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the publisher, Pan MacMillan, has pledged to match the donation to be split between Law Works (the solicitor's pro bono charity) and Legal Action Group (LAG, the Access to Justice charity).

We will be contacting members shortly to help with sending out the report and book to MPs.

Law Society Report “Disqualified from justice: Legal aid means test”: On 20 March 2018, the Law Society published a report, which can be downloaded here, which finds that the civil legal aid means test is preventing families in poverty from accessing justice.

The research from the University of Loughborough and commissioned by the Law Society shows that people on incomes already 10-30% below the minimum income standard are being excluded from legal aid, meaning that poverty hit families are being denied vital help to fight eviction, tackle severe housing disrepair and address other life-changing legal issues.

Law Society president Joe Egan said “The financial eligibility test for civil legal aid is disqualifying people from receiving badly-needed legal advice and representation, even though they are already below the poverty line … The position has been getting progressively worse, because the means test thresholds have been frozen since 2010, while the cost of living, of course, has not. Action is long overdue.”

The Law Society is therefore calling on the government to restore the means test to its 2010 real-terms level, and to conduct a review to consider what further changes are required to address the problems exposed by the report.

Legal aid for inquests: The Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence from the families of Connor Sparrowhawk and Joseph Phuong, whose loved ones died in state custody, about the inquest process and legal aid.

Simon Rowland, the husband of Joseph’s sister, was asked to list the public bodies with state-funded legal representation, which were 7 in total, including the Metropolitan Police, London Ambulance Service and several mental health trusts. He told the committee, “And yet the family who are the injured party are expected to fund themselves.”

Katie Gollop QC, who represents families at inquests, told the committee, “We cannot go on the way we are with pro bono filling the gap. It shames us to have families go on Twitter and crowdfund their representation at inquests.”

You can read more about the evidence given to the committee in the Justice Gap’s article here.

LASPO review: On 22 March, the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill MP, wrote to the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, about the Government’s review into the impact of LASPO. Neill urged the Government to commission research to fill any gaps in evidence and reiterated the cost benefit of early advice. He said, “We are pleased to hear you confirm that the LASPO review will be considering this issue (early advice) and we would urge you to ensure that the cost benefit analysis of the LASPO reforms is designed to capture these wider, personal, social and economic consequences, including at a cross-departmental level.” YLAL has also written to the Justice Secretary to ask to be included in the consultative groups for the LASPO review and we are awaiting a response.

Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): The Legal Services Board has approved an initial application by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to introduce the new SQE. The SQE, which will not come in before September 2020, will involve a single common assessment which replaces the courses and examinations under the current regime, including the GDL and LPC.

Law Society president Joe Egan said “At this point we only have a high-level outline of the SQE – the devil is in the detail. We are pleased to see the LSB has noted our concerns around the deep uncertainty regarding equality and diversity. In future, the SRA will be required to provide further evidence on how diversity risks are being mitigated.”

YLAL have responded to all previous consultations on SQE by the SRA.  You can find our initial response here and our three subsequent responses here.

In our report 'Social mobility in a time of austerity’ we recommend that:

  1. YLAL calls on the SRA to release information about expected costs, to both training providers and students of the SQE, imminently. This will allow for a properly informed discussion on SQE’s introduction and the potential effects it may or may not have on social mobility in the sector.
  2. The content of the SQE should be amended to ensure that areas of social welfare law and civil legal aid a properly made available within the contexts at SQE1 and 2.

We have a number of concerns regarding these reforms and will continue to raise these with the SRA during this phase of development.

Trainee solicitor minimum salary: The Law Society's recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors has increased by 3%, to £21,561 in London and £19,122 outside of London. This follows a review by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, which represents students and solicitors with five years post qualifying experience. Adele Edwin-Lamerton, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, said: “The Law Society recommended minimum salary is an important component of access to the profession. The method of calculation and the annual review assist in preventing personal finances acting as a barrier to talented individuals who would otherwise not be able to support themselves during the period of recognised training.” The recommended minimum salary will be reviewed again in November 2018.