Legal aid news – October 2016

Here’s our round-up of all the latest legal aid news from October, featuring important reports by Amnesty and the TUC, crowdfunding for access to justice and much more.

Amnesty report: the human rights group Amnesty released its report on the impact of cuts to legal aid, Cuts That Hurt, on 11 October. Upon publication of the report, Amnesty called on the government to immediately review the impact of reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) on access to justice and the protection of human rights, particularly for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Amnesty recommended that the government ensure that children are entitled to legal aid, restore funding for welfare benefits advice, restore initial legal advice for private family cases, overhaul the Exceptional Case Funding scheme and abandon plans to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid.

Our favourite quote from the report was from Sarah Sadek, of Avon and Bristol Law Centre, who said: “Legal aid gives a voice to the unheard and light to those overlooked. Without legal aid the marginalised are kept in the shadows. They cannot be seen and they cannot be heard.” The report was widely covered in the media, including by the Independent, the Guardian, Buzzfeed, RightsInfo and Left Foot Forward. You can read Amnesty’s press release here and take action by emailing the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, here.

TUC report: on 19 October, the Trades Union Congress released Justice Denied, its report on the impact of government reforms to legal aid and court services on access to justice. The TUC recommended that the government should ensure that access to legal aid is based on need and enables people to enforce their human right to justice, and should carry out immediate and in-depth assessments of the impacts of budget cuts, LASPO and reforms to court services on access to justice.

Solicitors Journal carried this report of Justice Denied, featuring the following comment from YLAL committee member Gimhani Eriyagolla: “YLAL agrees with the recommendations in the report, in particular the call for an immediate and in-depth assessment of the impact of legal aid cuts. We hope that Liz Truss, as the new secretary of state for justice, will consider these recommendations seriously.”

LASPO review: the government, represented in the House of Lords by Lord Keen, confirmed that the promised review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will take place “before April 2018”, as reported by Solicitors Journal. During the same debate, Lord Woolf told the House of Lords that “legal aid cuts are damaging the reputation of our justice system”. Meanwhile, although the government refused to confirm precisely when the review of LASPO will happen, the Law Society Gazette reported that another legal aid advice desert was highlighted by the Legal Aid Agency.

Legal aid for prisoners: the Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners Advice Services are crowdfunding for their legal challenge to the legal aid cuts for prison law, which will be heard by the Court of Appeal in January 2017. They need to raise at least £5,000, and have currently raised almost 80% of that initial total – please visit CrowdJustice if you would like to pledge to support the case!

Court and tribunal fees: the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) is also using CrowdJustice to challenge the government’s decision to increase asylum and immigration tribunal fees by up to 500%. You can help to protect access to justice by contributing to the crowdfunding effort here.

Birmingham pub bombings inquest: the families of the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings were granted legal aid for the re-opened inquests, as reported by the BBC and the Cumnock Chronicle (yes, we even scour local press for legal aid news!). However, while the families have been granted a limited amount of public funding for their legal representation at the inquests, West Midlands Police has reportedly set aside £1m for the cost of legal services for the hearings. Writing for the Justice Gap, former Court of Appeal judge Henry Brooke argued that the ‘Birmingham 21’ families deserve nothing less than full Hillsborough-style representation, and ITV News carried this story with the families’ description of the “partial legal aid funding” granted to them as draconian and unreasonable.

Embarrassment clause: following a letter before claim sent by Public Law Project in respect of the ’embarrassment clause’ inserted into new criminal legal aid contracts, the Legal Aid Agency agreed to clarify the remit of the clause. The LAA conceded that it must not “seek to rely on the clause to stifle criticism of, or challenges to, the Legal Aid Agency, the Lord Chancellor, or wider government”. You can read more about the challenge to the embarrassment clause on the Public Law Project website and on Legal Aid Handbook.

LAPG Conference: the Legal Aid Practitioners Group held its annual conference in Leeds on 7 October, and YLAL held two breakout sessions – on careers in legal aid and public law. You can read our summary of the conference here, and Fiona Bawdon’s article about the keynote speech by Martha Spurrier for Legal Voice here. The conference was an uplifting and informative day, and we would like to thank everyone who spoke at our two sessions.

SRA Consultation: the Solicitors Regulation Authority this month launched a second consultation on its proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). YLAL will be responding to this consultation, which closes on 9 January 2017. You can read our response to the SRA’s first consultation on the SQE here. YLAL agrees with the SRA that the route to qualification as a solicitor is in need of improvement, but has concerns about the potential impact of the proposed changes on social mobility, diversity and access to the profession.

Other news: the Secret Barrister blogged about why we need legal aid for the worst people in society, and – picking up on that theme – at the end of the month, it was reported by The Times (£) and the Daily Star that convicted Moors murderer Ian Brady is seeking legal aid to argue that he should be moved to prison from a high-security psychiatric hospital.