APPG Legal Aid report: JR reform

APPG on Legal Aid meets to discuss the reforms to judicial review: An “ideological” attack on the rights of ordinary people

by YLAL Member, Mary-Rachel McCabe

MPs were urged to halt ‘ideological’ cuts to judicial review at a breakfast meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid on Tuesday 8 April.

The meeting, which was chaired by Karl Turner MP, focused on the impending changes to judicial review under the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill and the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2014, which came into force on 22 April.

It was attended by legal aid practitioners; Labour MPs Andy Slaughter, Jeremy Corbyn and Yvonne Fovargue; Labour peer, Lord Willy Bach and Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Lavender QC. Regretfully, no coalition MPs were in attendance.

Why care about legal aid?

Debaleena Dasgupta, a solicitor at Birnberg Peirce and Partners specialising in actions against the police, introduced a film by the Justice Alliance about why legal aid – and in particular legal aid for judicial review – matters:

“The reality of my work is that most of my clients need legal aid because the police don’t tend to pick on rich people… Every day, we work with victims of state misconduct, state incompetence or sheer state indifference. The Justice Alliance film is to show that ordinary people need judicial review.”

The short film tells the story of Dasgupta’s client, Anita, who was failed by the system after becoming a victim of rape. “Anita never thought she would need legal aid,” said Dasgupta, “But then again she never expected to be raped.”  The police investigating Anita’s rape “let her down” and after trying to handle everything alone, she contacted 87 solicitors before eventually finding Birnberg Peirce.

Dasgupta successfully challenged an issue arising from a police failure on Anita’s behalf via judicial review. “The judicial review wasn’t about compensation for Anita; it was about vindication,” said Dasgupta, “and that’s what justice is really about.”

The film also tells the story of Gyanendra Rai, a Gurkha veteran of the Falklands war who used judicial review to help him gain the right to live in the UK and access the pension he had been denied.  “Without legal aid it is impossible to fight these cases,” says Rai in the film, “Without legal aid life is incomplete.”

Remedy of last resort

Diane Astin, who has been a legal aid lawyer for over twenty years and now specialises in public law at Scott Moncrieff and Associates, told the meeting that “most judicial review cases are about low level, basic services that people are refused.” They are not the high-profile, expensive cases that the government likes to make out: “they are about people getting basic rights and avoiding destitution.”

Astin reminded attendees that judicial review is a “remedy of last resort” that is needed “more than ever because simple remedies to problems have been blocked off.” 

Nicola Mackintosh, co-chair of Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group (LAPG) and a sole practitioner specialising in community care law, echoed Astin’s sentiment that legal aid “is about ordinary people and their right to access to justice under the rule of law.”

“The only reason I’m in this job is that sometimes the State gets it wrong. Sometimes the State misunderstands its powers or acts beyond its powers… and my clients need a legal remedy.”

Mackintosh, who was made an honorary QC earlier this year, told attendees about one of her cases, in which she managed to save a care-home through a judicial review of the local council’s plan to close it so that they could provide free parking in the town centre on Thursday evenings.  If the council had succeeded, the care home’s closure would have led to the inevitable death of some of its frail and elderly residents:

“As one of my clients put it, [legal aid] is not just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.”

Misleading myths

Martha Spurrier, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and formerly of the Public Law Project (PLP) attempted to dispel the myths that the government continually recites about judicial review.  It is “simply wrong” that judicial review is “radically on the rise”, said Spurrier. In fact, the number of cases per year hasn’t changed since 2005. “The government is trying to set up a problem in order to purport to solve it,” she said.

Spurrier added that the government’s assertion that “lots of judicial reviews are weak, frivolous and unmeritorious” is also wrong, as PLP statistics show that between 2011 and 2012, 87% of all judicial review claims succeeded in favour of the client with “state defendants” winning only 13% of judicial review cases. This represents a “staggering” success rate for claimants.

Spurrier warned the meeting to be “very wary of the statistics and be very wary of the executive trying to encroach on the power of the judiciary to keep a check on their actions and ensure fairness.”

The Chair of the APPG on Legal Aid, Karl Turner MP, rounded off the meeting by saying that the speakers had “hit the nail on the head”.

“This is not about finding efficiencies in the system,” he said. “This is an ideological attack.”

You can read YLAL’s briefing for the APPG here:  Briefing for APPG 8 April 2014_final.pdf