News from LAPG conference

YLAL recently contributed to the annual conference of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Committee member, Simao Paxi-Cato reports back on what happened:

Lord McNally (the new Minister for Legal Aid) opened up this year’s conference by telling the audience that he wanted to maintain an open dialogue between the Government and legal aid practitioners. He explained that in the coming months the LSC would be adopting more online processes in communicating with practitioners.

Matthew Coats, Chief Executive of the LSC, identified the LSC’s priorities going into 2013: (1) improving the organisation’s caseworking and control; (2) speeding up decisions on applications and claims whilst not compromising their error rate: and (3) ensuring that the creation of the new legal aid agency would not compromise the organisation’s independence from the perspective of users.

Andrew Caplen, deputy Vice-President of the Law Society, expressed his belief that despite all the challenges ahead of us, practitioners would continue to provide access to justice rather than leave legal aid work altogether. He urged people to embrace technology and IT in an effort to find cost savings.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group had words of encouragement for attendees: LASPO is not a once and for all bill and we should not concede defeat. He lambasted the LSC’s tendering process and predicted difficulties in the forthcoming tenders. Finally, he was positive that a lot of family cases in particular, would fall into the exceptional cases rules for funding.

During the day YLAL held two workshop sessions. In the first session, Cuts and Challenges over 50 delegates heard from YLAL committee member Laura Janes on the basics of judicial review and how to use that area of law to challenge cuts to services after LASPO. Mitchell Woolf, solicitor and head of the public law department at SCOMO spoke about his work in challenging local authority cuts to community care services.

Our second session covered how to get a career in the legal aid sector. Committee members Nadia Salam, Connor Johnston and Heather Thomas were joined on the panel by sole practitioner Greg Stewart. All gave tips and advice on how to go about getting into legal aid and why it was more important than ever for new lawyers to be doing this crucial work.

In the afternoon, delegates heard from the LSC directly. Hugh Barrett explained that the Government had decided to set limits on expert rates because fees were seen to be spiralling out of control. He told practitioners that the rates were not a maximum ceiling for fees, rather they should be viewed as guaranteed minimum rates which could be exceeded where justified by the case. He was less helpful in relation to increasing matter starts in response to complaints from solicitors that there was no clear policy on whether and how firms could apply for more matter starts and that ad hoc grants would could lead to under or over employment of staff.

In the final session of the day Richard Miller from the Law Society, picking up on the issue of matter starts, criticised them as needless bureaucracy and echoed the thoughts of Andrew Caplen on embracing technology. He also encouraged practitioners to try and make things work despite the added pressure of cuts. He told delegates that concrete evidence of ways in which the sector had tried to adapt would make it more credible when going back to the Government in an effort to overturn the measures.

Carol Storer, Director of LAPG, closed by telling attendees that the title of the “most worried legal aid practice area” would be more hotly contested than ever before. She also confirmed that LAPG would be working with YLAL over the coming year to try to overcome barriers to entering the legal aid profession.