Legal aid news – April 2016

Residence test: on 18 April, the Supreme Court heard the appeal by the Public Law Project in the residence test case. The hearing was due to last two days, but at the end of the first day the court took the apparently unprecedented step of announcing that it was unanimously ruling against the government on the issue of whether the proposed residence test was ultra vires the enabling statute. The court indicated that it did not consider it necessary to hear argument on the second ground of appeal, that the residence test would be unjustifiably discriminatory in breach of the common law and Human Rights Act 1998. The court’s full written judgment was reserved, but a summary of the decision is available on the Supreme Court website here.

YLAL is delighted with the decision by the Supreme Court, having campaigned against the unfair and discriminatory residence test since it was first proposed by the Coalition Government. Our co-chair Ollie wrote this blog for the Huffington Post before the Supreme Court hearing. Jo Hickman, the director of the Public Law Project, said: “We are delighted with the outcome, which so fundamentally vindicates PLP’s long-stated position as to the lawfulness of the proposed residence test. Its impact on access to justice would have been catastrophic.”

John Halford, the solicitor at Bindmans instructed by the Public Law Project, said: “The British legal system is rooted in two fundamental principles – that all equally enjoy the protection of ours laws and all are accountable to our Courts. The Lord Chancellor takes an oath of office to honour these principles, but planned to undermine them by withholding legal aid from those who failed his residence test, leaving them powerless to enforce legal rights in the most compelling cases. Yet today, after minutes of deliberation, seven Justices of our highest court held him accountable, ruling he was acting in a legal vacuum and without Parliamentary authority. They were right to do so – rationing British justice using a residence test is repugnant to British law.” Bindmans’ press release is here.

The Supreme Court’s judgment was widely reported in the legal and mainstream press, including by the Law Society Gazette, Solicitors Journal, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and Sky News.

Legal aid statistics: at the end of March, the Legal Aid Agency released the latest legal aid statistics, and YLAL committee member Siobhan Taylor-Ward provided this detailed expert analysis of the impact of the legal aid cuts for The Justice Gap. Jon Robins also analysed the statistics – demonstrating “the cuts that keep on cutting” – here for Legal Voice.

The Hillsborough inquests: on 26 April, the verdicts were handed down in the Hillsborough inquests, with the jury ruling that the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives following the events of 15 April 1989 were unlawfully killed. Siobhan Taylor-Ward, who co-ordinates YLAL Liverpool and works as a case officer for the Hillsborough Inquests Team at Jackson Canter Solicitors, wrote this excellent article for The Justice Gap about the inquest verdicts and their importance to the people of Liverpool.

In this editorial, the Guardian rightly noted that an inquest “is only as good as the coroner and the legal representation of the parties involved”, and that families can only obtain legal aid for inquests in limited circumstances. The Justice Gap had more brilliant coverage of the inquests from Brenda Campbell and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, two of the barristers who represented the Hillsborough families, who wrote this piece about how the state fails the bereaved. Brenda and Caoilfhionn emphasised the vital principle of equality of arms, concluding that the government “must ensure that bereaved families receive funding for legal representation to strip away lies and obfuscations and ensure justice and accountability”.

Social mobility: YLAL co-chairs Rachel Francis and Ollie Carter used their regular Legal Action magazine column in April to consider recent reports about social mobility and diversity in the legal profession and the SRA consultation on a proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination. YLAL plans to prepare an updated report on social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector this year, following our previous report in 2013, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’.

Other news: the Guardian reported research by Transform Justice indicating that legal aid cuts have led to a surge in the number of unrepresented defendants in criminal trials. Former Justice Minister Lord McNally responded supportively to a recent letter to the Guardian calling on the government to review the legal aid cuts at the earliest opportunity, which was co-signed by YLAL, by proposing a review by a joint committee of both houses of Parliament. Finally, during lunch with Legal Hackette (aka Catherine Baksi), Sir Edward Garnier QC, the former Solicitor General, acknowledged that “the publicly funded bar is impoverished. There are hundreds of utterly wonderful and dedicated people working at what’s left of the criminal legal aid bar earning peanuts.” You can read the full interview, which also covers the Human Rights Act / Bill of Rights and Brexit debates, here.