Legal aid news – March 2016

LASPO review: YLAL co-chairs Rachel and Ollie signed this letter to The Guardian calling on the government to review the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 at the earliest opportunity. The government pledged to review LASPO three to five years after its implementation, and 1 April 2016 marks the third anniversary of the Act coming into force. Other signatories to the letter include Jonathan Smithers, the president of the Law Society, Jenny Beck and Nicola Mackintosh QC, the co-chairs of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, and Jo Edwards, the chair of Resolution.

CCMS: CCMS, or the ‘Client and Cost Management System’ for civil legal aid applications, was made mandatory by the Legal Aid Agency from 1 April 2016 onwards, despite widespread opposition from the legal profession. Resolution and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group issued this joint statement on 30 March 2016 calling on the LAA to “see sense, take a pragmatic approach, and not force people to use a system that is clearly not fit for purpose” until improvements have been made. YLAL endorses this joint statement by Resolution and LAPG.

Residence test: in February 2016, the Supreme Court granted permission to Public Law Project to appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which in November 2015 found in favour of the government that the proposed residence test for civil legal aid is not unlawful. A seven judge panel of the Supreme Court will hear the case on 18 and 19 April. YLAL co-chair Ollie wrote this blog for the Huffington Post about the case. The Court of Appeal judgment – which overturned an earlier Administrative Court judgment – is available here and was reported on for the Justice Gap by Ollie.

Criminal legal aid: YLAL committee member Áine Kervick wrote this article for Solicitors Journal about the future of criminal legal aid, following the government’s decision to abandon two tier contracts and suspend the second 8.75% fee cut.

SRA consultation: the Solicitors Regulation Authority recently consulted on a proposed ‘Solicitors Qualifying Examination’ (or SQE), a common professional assessment to be taken immediately prior to qualification as a solicitor. The aim of introducing the SQE would be to “ensure that all aspiring solicitors, no matter what institution they attended or pathway they took, are assessed against the same high standard of competence”. The consultation closed on 4 March 2016 and YLAL submitted this response to provide the SRA with views from junior and aspiring legal aid lawyers. Following the closure of the consultation, the SRA announced it will pause and “rethink” its proposals, as reported here by the Law Society Gazette.

Labour legal aid review: read the excellent blog by Sir Henry Brooke to keep up to date with all the latest developments from the Access to Justice Commission set up by Lord Bach as part of Labour’s legal aid review. YLAL will be submitting written evidence to the review by the end of April. Steve Hynes of Legal Action Group argued in this blog that Labour’s legal aid review needs to focus on the public. Lord Bach himself acknowledged that Labour helped to erode the consensus about the need for legal aid and access to justice, and The Law Society told Labour’s Access to Justice Commission that the rule of law is undermined if people cannot exercise their right to access justice.

Legal aid for trafficking victims: the Lord Chancellor has agreed to conduct a review of the availability of legal aid for trafficking victims, after a judicial review brought by the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) was granted permission.

Becky Watts: the BBC and other media reported that the killers of Becky Watts received £400,000 in legal aid for their criminal trial. The Secret Barrister took issue with the BBC for the lack of context provided to the sensational headline, and Jon Robins for The Independent defended the principles of our publicly-funded legal system from the media outrage.

Other news: Catherine Baksi wrote this article on the politics of pro bono for Legal Action magazine. Jenny Kleeman’s excellent article for the New Statesman on the real impact of the legal aid cuts featured immigration lawyer Ana Gonzalez of Wilson Solicitors and her clients. A senior judge in the Court of Protection challenged the government to provide legal representation for vulnerable people in cases concerning deprivations of liberty. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett wrote to the government to urge it to overturn the decision to deny legal aid to the parents of Zane Gbangbola, who died following the winter floods in February 2014, for representation at the inquest touching upon their son’s death.

We are delighted for Martha Spurrier, who on 31 March 2016 was appointed as the new director of Liberty, succeeding Shami Chakrabarti (whose farewell article for The Guardian is worth reading). Martha has been a great friend of YLAL and was on the panel for the access to justice debate at our 10th anniversary event in April 2015. Congratulations Martha! And to round off with even more good news, former YLAL co-chair Katie Brown, now a partner at TV Edwards Solicitors, has been nominated for the ‘Rising Star’ award at the inaugural Solicitors Journal awards. Good luck Katie!