Legal aid news: November 2019

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news for November 2019.

General Election: In the run up to the General Election, which took place on 12 December 2019, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) launched the #3Pledges4Justice campaign. We asked members to Tweet the parliamentary candidates in their constituency to show their support for 3 key pledges for a fair justice system:

  1. Make legal aid available to ordinary people: The means test for civil legal aid excludes at least 70% of the population from effective access to justice. This cannot be fair. We call on the next government to reform the means test to ensure more people who cannot afford to pay for legal advice and representation are eligible for legal aid.
  2. Bring back legal aid for social welfare law:  Legal aid was removed in 2012 from crucial areas of social welfare law, such as debt, housing, welfare benefits, immigration and family law. This was done in the name of austerity, but all the evidence shows that early legal advice stops people’s problems escalating and saves taxpayer money overall. We call on the next government to repeal the 2012 legislation (Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offences Act) and restore legal aid for social welfare law.
  3. Pay legal aid lawyers fairly for the vital work they do: Lawyers providing vital legal aid services to our society have had no change in their hourly rate of pay for over 25 years (not even for inflation). We call on the next government to pay them fairly to ensure that future generations of legal aid lawyers will be available to help keep people safe and protect their rights.

You can find out more about the campaign here.

It’s not too late to contact your elected MP! YLAL’s draft Tweet is ““Hi @xxx do you support @YLALawyers’ #3Pledges4Justice? If so, please Tweet your support.”

YLAL a number of other campaigns in the run up to the general election.

Firstly, we supported INQUEST’s call for all parties to commit to #LegalAidForInquests for bereaved families who have lost loved ones in state related deaths. You can read more about INQUEST’s campaign  here.

YLAL also supported the Law Society’s call for parties to prioritise support for the recommendations set out in the Law Society’s ‘vision of law and justice’. They include:

  • fixing our broken criminal justice system;
  • making the legal system accessible to all;
  • maintaining the attractiveness of the UK as a global legal centre;
  • ensuring the UK leads the way on new technology.

This is particularly important  as the interim announcements around the Ministry of Justice’s comprehensive review of criminal legal aid (due Summer 2020), have been delayed in light of the general election. The announcements were due to provide ‘indicative proposals’ on five areas where the report’s work was accelerated. A particular concern is around the pay disparity between prosecution fees and the publicly funded defence system, which will be exacerbated by the revised fees announcement for prosecution advocates as published by the Crown Prosecution Service. You can find out more about the progress of the report here.

RebLaw: The 2019 RebLaw UK conference took place on the 23 and 24 November. RebLaw UK is the sister conference to Yale Law School’s RebLaw, the largest student-run public interest law conference in the US. The conference is grounded in the spirit of Gerald Lopez’s ‘Rebellious Lawyering’ and brings together law students, practitioners and activists to build a community to work in the service of social change movements and to challenge the hierarchies of race, wealth, gender and expertise within legal practice and education. 

This year the conference focused on a wide range of topics, including climate change, data harvesting, mass surveillance, challenging the abuse of non-disclosure agreements in the post-MeToo era and the deprivation of citizenship. You can find out more about this year’s conference here.

Awards: November saw Pro Bono Week in the UK and the Bar Pro Bono Awards, as well as the Law Works Pro Bono awards.

YLAL were delighted that Shu Shin Luh of Garden Court Chambers was awarded the Junior Pro Bono Barrister of the Year at the Bar Pro Bono Awards, for her outstanding pro bono work, including her most recent efforts for Shelter. Shu Shin specialises in administrative and public law, civil liberties and human rights, community care and education, and is very supportive of YLAL’s work.

As part of Pro Bono Week, Lady Hale attended the Law Works Pro Bono awards and shone a light on the need to redress the damage which the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LAPSO 2012). The same week also saw the Commonwealth Law meeting, where senior officials, attorney generals and ministers gathered to discuss how to improve cooperation, particularly in the current clime of austerity, which has deprived many of access to justice and the rise in populist nationalism has undermined respect for the international courts. Ahead of the meeting, in an interview with the Guardian, Lady Scotland, the Commonwealth secretary general and former attorney general under the last Labour government, called for coordinated action on climate change, corruption and cybercrime amongst the Commonwealth’s 53 member states, showing that the Commonwealth could become a ‘beacon’ for international collaboration. You can read the interview in full here.

Rise in unrepresented defendants: The head of the Criminal Bar warned this month that the number of unrepresented defendants in Crown Courts is rising sharply, with up to 7.7% of those appearing at their first crown court hearing last due to cuts to legal aid and their increasing impact on the criminal justice system. You can read more about this here. Kerry Hudson, the President of London’s Criminal Courts Solicitor’s Association, also penned a letter in the Guardian, writing that:

‘No doctor would turn a patient away from A&E on the basis that the internet can diagnose their symptoms. No teacher would tell a child to educate themselves on the basis that books are available at the library. Fair and equal access to legal representation for those accused of a crime is a low priority for most until they or a loved one experiences the criminal justice system directly. Then the true extent of the broken system and the real potential for a miscarriage of justice becomes real’. You can read the letter in full here.

YLAL is extremely grateful to volunteer Sophie Lansdowne for preparing this news update.