Legal aid news: October 2019

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from October 2019.

Legal aid cuts as a false economy:

A report published by the International Bar Association’s access to justice committee and the World Bank found that investment in legal aid can lead to significant government savings, greater efficiency in the justice system and increased economic productivity.

The report surveyed over 50 cost-benefit analyses of legal aid programmes across the developed and developing world. The results overwhelmingly documented how increased access to justice can be a ‘win-win’ for individuals, the economy and wider society, with benefits including:

  1. A reduction in the length of time suspects are held in police stations and detention centres;
  2. A reduction in the prison population;
  3. A reduction in the number of wrongfully convicted persons;
  4. A reduction in sentencing costs; and
  5. An increase in the efficiency of the courts via reduced time spent on self-representing litigants.

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, a member of the IBA Access to Justice and Legal Aid Committee, commented “unaddressed legal needs affect individuals, their families, the justice system, the economy and society as a whole” and “as a profession we must continue to champion legal aid programmes and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access justice”.

Legal aid for inquests:

On 6 October, BBC radio 4’s File on 4 Programme investigated access to justice for bereaved families going through the inquest process. The programme, “Families versus the state: An unfair fight?” is available here. It follows one family’s plight to find out the circumstances of their mother’s death at an inquest, despite being denied legal aid in circumstances where other Interested Parties (who were State bodies) were legally represented with public money.

After the inquest, the family submitted Freedom of Information requests to the 53 mental health NHS trusts in England. The responses revealed that the NHS trusts had spent over £4million on legal representation at inquests in the financial year 2017/18 (of the half that responded). It is reported that just £118,000 was made available to bereaved families in legal aid.

Crime and criminal legal aid:

On 2 October 2019 the Guardian published an article by the Secret Barrister denouncing the Tories’ stance on crime as “shameless and cynical”.

With party conference season in full swing, justice secretary Robert Buckland QC announced the introduction of “proper punishment” for “the most serious violent and sexual offenders”, which would be achieved by preventing such offenders being released “at the halfway point of their sentence”.

The article highlighted a fundamental flaw in this new policy, namely that the “most serious violent and sexual offenders” are not currently automatically released at the halfway point of their sentences. Instead, the policy targets a very small percentage of defendants in the criminal justice system who are convicted of serious violent or sexual offences, but who do not receive a life sentence or extended determinate sentence and who, therefore, are not among the “most serious” offenders.

The announcement attracted criticism as “cynicism bordering on nihilism; shamelessly undermining public confidence in sentencing by spreading misinformation about how the justice system actually works”, at a time when the criminal justice and legal aid systems are in crisis.

Questions in Parliament about legal aid:

On 8 October, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Ellie Reeves MP (LAB), the MP for Lewisham West and Penge, told Parliament that the cuts to legal aid are costing a great deal to society and ultimately the Treasury due to health problems caused by resolvable issues such as homelessness and wrong welfare benefits decisions. She explained that these costs could have been avoided if legal aid had been provided in the first place. This, she said, ultimately undermines the rule of law. You can listen to her powerful speech here.

The Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon MP, asked the government to match Labour’s proposal to bring back legal aid for early legal aid advice.