Legal aid news: August and September 2019

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

University students to fill a gap in access to justice:

The University of Bristol’s law clinic has launched an initiative seeking to address the gap in legal representation at inquests for bereaved families. Believed to be the first student led clinic with a focus on inquests the team will be supervised by Sumayyah Malna, an inquest solicitor.

Bereaved families may only access legal aid for representation at an inquest through Exceptional Case Funding where strict criteria must be met. While the Ministry of Justice denies families funding for representation at their love ones’ inquest, State bodies and large corporations have access to unlimited public funding for solicitors and barristers. Malna hopes the University of Bristol will address this imbalance.

In a similar vein, the University of Bolton has opened a free legal advice centre. The centre aims to provide members of the public with free initial legal advice with supervision from the university’s law department. Ian Bowden, Lecturer in Law and practising Solicitor Advocate states: “There are many cases that we know are not being dealt with at the moment and that is where we come in. The aim of the centre to offer a valuable service to the people of Bolton, while at the same time providing an important learning experience for students”.

While the effects of universities are commendable, their need highlights the strains legal aid cuts have placed on access to justice.

Legal aid funding for families of terror victims:

The relatives of the victims of the Manchester terrorist attack have begun to apply for legal aid in preparation of the inquest due to commence in April 2020. The Guardian reported that campaigners have criticised the application process, calling for families who have lost loved ones in the terror attack to automatically receive legal aid funding for representation at the inquest. Deborah Coles, director at Inquest notes “The funding process is intrusive and protracted and adds further trauma”.

Having gone through the challenging application process families may still be refused legal aid funding. Meanwhile the police, emergency and security services are guaranteed access to publicly funded representation at the upcoming inquest. This inequality in representation raises concerns that families may fail to have their key questions answered.

Coles states that “Families face multiple state lawyers, paid for at public expense, who frequently put defence of their interests above the search for the truth,” and adds “The past few years have seen an unprecedented focus on how agencies investigate contentious deaths and there have been repeated calls for reform so families have automatic access to legal aid for inquests. This inequality … is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families.”

One family facing the difficult consequences of a legal aid refusal is the family of Ann Hamilton, a soldier who died in the 1974 Guildford pub bombing. The BBC reported that the family has been refused legal aid funding in the resumed inquest of her death.

Despite Surrey coroner’s Richard Travers written support for the family’s application the Legal Aid Agency refused funding. The Surrey Police and Ministry of Defence will both receive public funding for their legal representation at the inquest.

Delays in criminal cases blamed on cuts:

The Guardian reported that a survey by Jonathan Dunne, Nottingham based criminal barrister as KCH Garden Square chambers, has revealed 127 courtrooms out of 260 in 34 crown court centres in England and Wales were left empty on Monday 19 August 2019. Despite an alarming backlog of criminal cases. 

Dunne states, “There are thousands of cases backed up, relisted and delayed,” Dunne said. “Judges are perfectly open with us: they have had their sitting day allocations cut. In my area there are 500 trials they want to do.”

Since 2010, 295 courts in England and Wales have closed. This includes 162 out of 323 magistrates’ courts and 8 out of 92 crown courts. These closures took place against the background of a request in the 2010 spending review that the Ministry of Justice make 25% of cuts in the four years leading to 2014/15.

Richard Atkins QC, the chair of the Bar Council stated: “That so many crown courts are sitting empty will come as a devastating blow to those victims of crime who are waiting for their cases to come to court or who are waiting for justice to be done to those who have admitted committing crimes against them. Whilst I am encouraged by the news that the government intends to increase the number of serving police officers, funding must be provided to ensure that those who are alleged to have committed crimes can be placed before a functioning court without delay. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Legal aid funding for Carl Beech hits headlines:

The Telegraph reported on legal aid granted of almost £180,000 to Carl Beech, found guilty of 12 charges of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud. Commenting on the piece on Twitter the Secret Barrister stated: “Legal aid ensures fair trials for the accused and justice for victims of crime. Without legal aid, this man’s victims would have been cross-examined by him in person, greatly increasing their agony and the length of trial. Legal aid has spared them and saved the taxpayer £000s.”

Family law consultation on children’s cases in the Family Courts:

In Autumn 2018 the President of the Family Division invited Mr Justice Keehan (public law) and Mr Justice Cobb (private law), to lead two cross-professional Working Groups, to look at practices and processes in these two areas. The interim reports can be read here. On 29 September 2019, YLAL responded to both Interim Reports. YLAL is grateful to committee member Sam Coe and a number of members for preparing this response.

International Bar Association and World Bank report 2019:

On 26 September 2019, the International Bar Association Access to Justice and Legal Aid Committee and the World Bank published a report stating that improving legal aid services is as important for economic growth as providing functioning hospitals, schools and roads.

The report, “A Tool for Justice: A Cost Benefit Analysis of Legal Aid” can be read in full here. It details how increased access to justice can be a ‘win-win’ for businesses, the economy and society at large. More than 50 cost and benefit studies of legal aid programmes from around the world were surveyed for the report.

Direct tangible benefits include less lost income for the individual and society and lower costs for running court cases when parties are represented.  Indirect intangible returns include trust in the justice system and feelings of empowerment. One of the examples is the 2017 study in Scotland showing that every pound spent on legal aid in housing cases created a return of about £11.

IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto commented: “The evidence is clear – improving access to justice benefits society and contributes to economic growth. I urge the international community to read this report and share the findings. In a world of injustice, it is vital that we work together to redress the balance.”

Georgia Harley, Senior Governance Specialist at The World Bank, commented: “Legal aid is undeniably good economics. Strengthening legal aid and related services increases access to justice and ensures that the rule of law is upheld. Most importantly, improving legal aid programmes saves government money and strengthens the economy in the long term.”

Labour party policy on access to justice and legal aid: At their 2019 annual conference, the  shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon announced a new network of People’s Law Centres where families could get early legal advice and support and free legal training for 200 social welfare lawyers.

Burgon said: “When people lack the money or the knowledge to enforce their rights, those rights are not worth the paper they are written on. We will put an end to that and ensure that justice serves the people, not just a privileged few. With a new generation of community lawyers and people’s law centres, we’ll help those targeted by the Conservatives’ cuts to fight back, defend their hard-won rights and secure the justice they deserve.”

You can read the Law Society Gazette’s coverage here.