YLAL Virtual: ‘Question time with Parliament’

On Wednesday 10th June 2020, YLAL hosted a ‘Question Time with Parliament’ #YLALVirtual event which took the form of a question and answer session. The event featured a cross party panel of Parliamentarians; Karl Turner MP (Shadow Minister for Legal Aid, Labour Party), Baroness Natalie Bennett (Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, Green Party), Daisy Cooper MP (Vice-Chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, Liberal Democrats), James Daly MP (Vice-Chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, Conservative Party) and Liz Saville Roberts MP (Justice Spokesperson, Plaid Cymru). The meeting was chaired by Megan Millar (YLAL Committee member and future pupil barrister at 6KBW).  

The meeting began with introductions, followed by discussion of the current legal aid issues impacting on access to justice. The first speaker, Karl Turner MP, a former criminal barrister, accepted that whilst the last Labour government was ‘not perfect’, the situation was much better than at present. 

Turner described now as being the ‘worst’ time to become a legal aid lawyer under the Conservative government, with a huge reduction in criminal practitioners from 1,851 in 2010 to 1,147 at present.  He stated that the Government has been ‘awful’ in providing access to justice with the ‘worst’ piece of legislation being the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’). 

Until 2012, Legal Aid was available for almost all areas of law, subject to specified exceptions. LASPO changed the system, transforming it overnight to a system focusing on a much smaller and more specific list of legal areas which are ‘in scope’ for Legal Aid. Turner explained that the areas removed from scope included clinical negligence, housing disrepair, debt and employment. 

Additionally, he questioned whether the Government had actually made savings through the cuts to legal aid and that it was there ‘cynical vicious ploy’ to attack access to justice. Turner referred to Chris Grayling as ‘Failing Grayling’  during his time as Lord Chancellor. According to the Bar Council’s survey of practitioners in April 2020, BAME lawyers have been most affected by COVID-19; Turner said that the Government has not taken any action to address this concern. Lastly, he reflected on the Labour Party’s view on access to justice and how Legal Aid should be treated as the ‘NHS’ of the justice system. 

The second speaker, Baroness Natalie Bennett, stated that ‘justice unfunded is justice denied’ and explained how Legal Aid is still being ‘slashed’ significantly. She shared her remarks on how the legal aid workforce is ageing and how she would like to see younger voices coming through. 

Baroness Bennett explained how members of the Green Party are regularly arrested for protesting on the issue of Legal Aid. She further explained how crucial it is that young lawyers undertake pro bono work to keep the system afloat. 

Baroness Bennett expressed concerns regarding the ill-treatment of clients in asylum law. She explained that both asylum seekers and refugees face huge health risks in overcrowded living conditions, made worse by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, she questioned the justification for immigration detention where the Government does not provide any assistance. She also raised concerns about the poor treatment of prisoners in youth detention centres and how the current situation in prisons poses a significant risk to public health. She finished by stating that ‘the system is at breaking point and COVID-19 is worsening it.’

The third speaker, Daisy Cooper MP, spoke of the impact of COVID-19 on Legal Aid. Personally, her legal aid casework had reduced massively, almost overnight. Cooper further explained that COVID-19 had caused local councils and immigration to halt. She explained that COVID-19 has affected individuals and businesses, and that the justice system workforce is at risk of ‘meltdown’. At present, legal aid lawyers’ have lower profit margins and their earnings are usually less than the minimum wage. The present situation not only affects clients but has worsened the lives of many professionals working within legal aid. She further stressed the implications of a lack of funding and explained that there is a common misconception that all lawyers are ‘well off’ financially. 

Cooper referred to the current crisis in the courts and expressed concern that, in some parts of the country, it will take at least a year to clear the backlog of cases according to the evidence. Questions have also been raised about the capacity of individual courts to introduce and maintain social distancing guidelines. Cooper emphasised the urgency of adequate support funding packages and the issues facing the legal aid sector as a whole.

The fourth speaker, Liz Saville Roberts MP, spoke of her experience representing her rural constituency in the North West of Wales. Saville Roberts discussed the current magistrates’ court situation, Chris Grayling and probation, the gradual growth of the Welsh legislature, the Domestic Abuse Bill and emphasised her concern that social justice should not depend on financial means. She explained that it is the duty of the state to provide justice and they have failed to do so. 

Saville Roberts commented on the impact of legal aid cuts and expressed concern at the fact that prison numbers have not reduced in England and Wales. Saville Roberts believes that the future reduction in the prison population would be a mark of success. 

Finally, James Daly MP, who worked for 16 years as a criminal legal aid solicitor and is a current member of the Justice Committee, stressed the importance of a sustainable career in Legal Aid. Daly highlighted that the salaries paid to young legal aid lawyers are far too low. Furthermore, he expressed that there is no private pension scheme available to legal aid lawyers and there is a significant decline in legal aid providers.

Daly explained that legal aid providers can often only generate a sustainable income through additional work, such as police station visits. Daly stated that the role of a legal aid solicitor is not represented in the best way possible and therefore needs to be addressed. He would welcome an increase in the legal aid budget but believes the entire system requires change. 

Daly echoed the points raised by Cooper on the impact of COVID-19 on the level of work available. He expressed how students should still be encouraged to enter the legal profession and that law firms should collaborate to develop a robust financial system to support and deliver justice.  

During the Q&A session, the panel answered a wide range of questions from the audience. All panellists supported the Bach Commission’s recommended proposal of a statutory right to justice. 

James Daly MP explained his comment that the criminal justice system is ‘stuffed with barristers’ with reference to the fact that criminal legal aid solicitors are likely to earn much less than barristers and that solicitors need to get into parliament to make their cases heard. 

Cooper addressed the urgency and flexibility of legal aid support with reference to the Coronavirus Act 2020. She described the Act as ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ and encouraged devising case studies to co-ordinate a cross-party letter. She suppor
ts the idea of a grant-based crisis fund to which any of the legal aid providers can apply. It is believed that it would help if the Legal Aid Network could collect examples so that representations can be made. This was further supported by James Daly MP who suggested the reintroduction of the ‘green form’ legal aid system to assist.

Karl Turner MP thanked YLAL for building awareness of the impact of the new fixed fee for immigration and asylum work through its #APrayerForLegalAid campaign and said how brilliant it was that 50 MPs were now signed up to it [NB at the time of writing, there are 100 MPs signed up]. 

Turner claimed that criminal solicitors carry out a lot of unpaid work due to release under investigation (‘RUI’) and asked James Daly MP to speak with Robert Buckland QC MP about this. Daly said he was open to hearing more about the motion. 

Daisy Cooper MP expressed the need to win ‘hearts and minds’ on Legal Aid and talked about there being clear parallels between NHS and the justice system; the point being that essential work needs to be paid. 

James Daly MP discussed the topic of training contracts and described them as ‘not well paid’. Turner agreed using an example of ‘the CPS offering flexible work, 20k+ more and a pension’ which he described as ‘unfair’. Turner said that he was devastated that criminal Legal Aid is on ‘its knees and going’. 

Cooper believes the Legal Aid means test should be simplified and reflect financial reality. Turner responded that Labour’s manifesto needs to be improved on that issue. 

Liz Saville Roberts MP discussed INQUEST’s campaign on Legal Aid for inquests and the inequality of arms. Baroness Natalie Bennett also discussed the Truth About Zane campaign. Daly recommended a review on the means test to ensure fairness, reasonableness and morality, especially for cohorts of people such as domestic violence victims or people whose first language is not English, who cannot be expected to represent themselves. 

Karl Turner MP and Baroness Bennett support the idea of unionising the legal profession to take proper action on Legal Aid. Baroness Bennett said she would like to see the focus on client needs and the significance of diversity within the profession. Daly considered the Law Society to be his trade union but urged more legal aid lawyers to join. Saville Roberts would prioritise the impact of legal aid cuts on BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of colour) lawyers and supports the generation of a new law centre based in North Wales [for more information on this, watch out for our minutes on YLAL Cymru’s inaugural meeting on 24 June 2020]. 

Finally, Baroness Bennett spoke of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid’s collective objectives and explained that the group acts as an important forum of discussion and point of contact between the Government, Parliament and those interested in the legal aid sector. 

We are very grateful to YLAL member Lavanya Shankar for this write-up. If you’d like to volunteer to write up a future YLAL event, email ylalinfo@gmail.com