Legal aid news – January 2016

January 2016 was a busy month in the legal aid world – here is our round-up of the latest legal aid news.

Criminal legal aid: the dispute concerning the ‘two tier’ criminal legal aid contracts continued – after the judicial review challenge to the second consultation process was unsuccessful, criminal firms submitted their tender bids in May 2015. The government announced which firms had been awarded contracts in October 2015, following which dozens of unsuccessful firms launched legal challenges to the tender process. There were then revelations from whistleblowers within the LAA about the tender assessment process.

On 28 January 2016, in a written statement to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove announced that the government has decided to abandon plans to introduce the two tier contracts for criminal legal aid and to suspend the second 8.75% fee cut for 12 months. The written statement is available here. This news was reported by the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent and others. This article in the Law Society Gazette provides a useful timeline summarising the history of the dispute.

The Law Society Gazette has also reported that some firms are considering bringing claims for compensation against the government following the announcement. There have been calls by the Labour party for the government to reveal how much it spent on attempting to impose two tier contracts before Michael Gove announced the decision to abandon the proposed contracts.

YLAL welcomes the government’s decision to scrap the two tier contracts and suspend the second fee cut. Along with the representative bodies for criminal solicitors, the Justice Alliance and other groups, we have opposed the plans to introduce two tier contracts and cut criminal legal aid since they were announced by the coalition government. We hope the Ministry of Justice will work with the representative bodies to ensure there is an effective, fair and sustainable system of criminal legal aid.

Residence test: in November 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed the government’s appeal against the decision of the High Court that the proposed residence test for civil legal aid is unlawful. Our co-chair, Oliver Carter, wrote this article for the Justice Gap about the judgment. The case was also reported by the Law Society Gazette,

Public Law Project has announced that it will seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, while the government has said it intends to introduce the residence test – it has linked this to media stories about claims against the armed forces by those alleged to have been mistreated in Iraq. The government’s plan to introduce the residence test has been reported by, amongst others, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

Domestic violence evidence criteria: Rights of Women’s appeal against the judgment of the High Court concerning the evidence criteria for granting legal aid to victims of domestic violence was heard in the Court of Appeal at the end of January. Judgment has been reserved. The case was reported in the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Law Society Gazette.

Actions against the police: the Court of Appeal judgment in R (Sisangia) v Director of Legal Aid Casework means that legal aid in non-personal injury civil claims against public authorities will be limited to cases where there is a deliberate or dishonest act or omission causing harm. The case was reported by Solicitors Journal.

Court fees: dramatic increases in court fees have been criticised by senior judges in evidence given to the Justice Select Committee, as reported by the Guardian and the Law Society Gazette.

Labour legal aid review: the review of legal aid for the Labour party instigated by Jeremy Corbyn after he became leader was launched late last year and held its first meeting in January. The launch event in November 2015 was reported on by YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter for the Justice Gap and the first meeting of the commission appointed by Lord Bach was covered by Owen Bowcott in the Guardian. Lord Bach and the Shadow Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer, also wrote this article for the Guardian describing the lack of access to justice post-LASPO as “a national disgrace”.

Voices for Justice rally: on 6 January, the Justice Alliance staged the ‘Voices for Justice’ rally at Conway Hall in London, with speakers including Jeremy Corbyn, Shami Chakrabarti and YLAL founder Laura Janes. The rally was reported by the Guardian and by YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter for the Justice Gap. In his speech, Jeremy Corbyn described legal aid as a basic human right.

Other news: Laurie Penny wrote this fantastic article for the New Statesman calling on everyone who cares about justice to start fighting back against legal aid cuts. Laurie’s article refers to YLAL research for our social mobility and diversity report about the salaries of young legal aid lawyers. Emma Howard wrote this excellent article for the Guardian about the next generation of social welfare lawyers, featuring quotes from YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter.