Tag Archive | "Catherine Dixon"

Independence of the UK legal profession

The International Bar Association (IBA) presidential taskforce has presented a report which identifies a risk to the independence of the legal profession in the UK.

This is because the oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board (LSB), is a non-departmental public body whose majority lay board is appointed by a government minister, the secretary of state for justice. As the accounting officer for the organisation, the CEO of the LSB has a reporting role, ultimately to the secretary of state for justice.

Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “We must never take the independence of the legal profession for granted. In the UK legal professional privilege (LPP) is under attack. LPP is a cornerstone of our justice system in that it ensures a person can speak confidentially to their solicitor without the risk that confidentiality will be breached by a third party, including the State.”

She added: “A strong and vibrant legal profession is vital to ensuring that everyone has access to justice and that the rule of law is upheld. This important report identifies areas where legal independence is under attack across the world including in the UK.”

Dixon pointed out: “It is notable that in a recent LSB report outlining its vision of regulation this government body failed to recognise the importance of an independent legal profession, which if lost would undermine the very fabric of our society and our ability to maintain the rule of law. It is imperative in this context, and in light of the many threats to legal independence around the world, that the legal profession stands together.”

Access to justice, an essential ingredient of the rule of law, has suffered a serious blow with the attack on legal aid. At the Labour conference in Liverpool, the party’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, confirmed that a future Labour government would increase legal aid spending and abolish employment tribunal fees. The fees were introduced in 2013 and have been blamed for a 70% fall in employment claims.

According to the ‘Gazette’ it is understood that the pledge, expected to cost between £15m and £20m a year, has been approved by the shadow treasury and will be in any future Labour manifesto.

Also at the Liverpool conference, Burgon told a fringe meeting that Labour would increase funding to the legal aid budget, though he did not give exact figures. It is also understood that Jeremy Corbyn is sympathetic to the argument that legal aid funding should increase.

Burgon said: “Everything that will run through our approach will be about returning to the vision of the Attlee government, which placed legal aid as one of the four pillars of the welfare state. We have to avoid attempts to degrade legal aid and recipients of legal aid. Of course we would put more money in the legal aid budget to give it the respect and finance it deserves.”

Earlier in the conference, Lord Bach, who is leading the Labour commission to put together the party’s justice policies, said legal aid funding should be made available for inquests. The chief coroner has called for bereaved families to be given exceptional funding for legal representation in cases where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested parties.

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The Civil Courts Structure Review

Last week Lord Justice Briggs published the Civil Courts Structure Review (CCSR), his final report into the structure of the civil courts.

It was commissioned by the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls in July 2015 to coincide with a programme for reform of the courts by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and looking at civil court structures and judicial processes more generally.

The final report follows an extensive series of meetings with judges, practitioners, stakeholders and users of the civil courts, and a series of detailed written and oral submissions following the publication of the review’s interim report in January 2016.

The report recommends a new online court for dealing with all monetary claims up to £25,000. The court will be designed to be used by people with ‘minimum assistance’ from lawyers with its own set of user-friendly rules, which he said will help to increase access to justice for those with unmet needs.

It is anticipated that it will eventually become the compulsory forum for resolving cases within its jurisdiction.

Briggs said lawyers must now face up to the challenge of unbundling and find a way to provide advice in the new system at a fixed recoverable cost.

A proposed three-stage process will involve automated triage to decide on the merits of a case, arbitration handled by an assigned case officer and a judicial decision if the case cannot be resolved any other way.

He recommends a system of case officers, made up from a senior body of court lawyers and other officials. They would assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. They would be trained and supervised by judges, and their decisions would be subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. They would operate independently of government when exercising their functions.

There should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new online court). This should be the county court, but “there would need to be a permeable membrane allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the high court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures to be digitised, centralised and rationalised.”

The principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of circuit judges specialising in civil work in the county court needs an urgent remedy.

In signing off his final report, Lord Justice Briggs comments: “It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means. In my view, if they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.”

The Law Society cautiously welcomed the report, sounding a note of caution on the importance of ensuring online courts do not limit access to justice. “It is vital that ordinary and vulnerable people using the online court are not prejudiced when claiming against large organisations,”

Chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “The final report on the online court indicates that IT may improve court efficiency. Importantly it also recognises the vital role solicitors will play in helping clients navigate the new system and ensuring that they are able to access justice.”

Photo courtesy of Province of British Columbia Photsteam.

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Discriminatory residence test for legal aid summarily thrown out

Our blog on Monday said that the Supreme Court would begin hearing arguments in a case challenging the government’s Legal Aid residence test that day. Remarkably by Monday evening the case was resolved.

The Supreme Court has taken what is believed to be the unprecedented step of allowing an appeal halfway through a two-day hearing. The bench of seven justices in the UK’s highest court abruptly halted the case and announced on Monday afternoon that it had found against the Ministry of Justice.

The government had been seeking to introduce the residence test via secondary legislation. The residence test restricts legal aid to people who are “lawfully resident” in the UK and have been for the past 12 months. The Public Law Project (PLP), which brought the case, said that this is outside the government’s powers and also discriminatory under human rights laws.

As reported in the ‘Gazette’ a brief statement by the supreme court said: “The issues in this appeal were whether the proposed civil legal aid residence test in the draft Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Amendment of Schedule 1) Order 2014 is ultra vires [beyond the powers of the legislation] and unjustifiably discriminatory and so in breach of common law and the Human Rights Act 1998.

“At the end of today’s hearing the supreme court announced that it was allowing the appeal on ground [of ultra vires] … The supreme court asked the parties whether they wished to address the court on the second issue. The case has been adjourned while this is considered.”

On Tuesday the court confirmed on its website that the hearing ‘has now concluded’. Full written reasons for its decision ‘will follow in due course’.

Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “This judgment goes some way in reaffirming the philosophy behind legal aid, which is that everyone should have the ability to get expert legal advice and representation to defend their legal rights.

“The court has upheld the vital principle that government must act within the scope of its powers and particular scrutiny must be given where equality before the law is being threatened.”

John Halford, the solicitor at the London law firm Bindmans, which is acting for the PLP, said: “Right now though, it is clear that the Supreme Court believed rationing British justice using delegated legislation was repugnant to British law and it was willing to act decisively to stop that happening.” Should the government want to introduce a residence test in the future, Halford said it would have to propose primary legislation with the residence test in it.

Such a swift ruling is a humiliating setback for the MoJ. Reversals were a regular matter for the previous unlamented justice secretary Grayling, but Gove has had the sense to abandon many unpopular measures introduced by his predecessor. He has blotted his copybook by allying himself with this now thrown out policy. He intended to proceed with plans to introduce the scheme this summer.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are of course very disappointed with this decision. We will now wait for the full written judgment to consider.”

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The £25 billion legal sector

The legal sector is growing over two and a half times faster than the economy as a whole. The UK Legal sector was worth £25.7bn in 2015, up by £1.9bn on the previous year. The sector has grown by an average of 3.3% a year over the past decade.

These are headline findings to emerge from Economic Value of the Legal Services Sector, which the Law Society says is the first study of the contribution that legal services makes to the wider UK economy.

The new analysis shows that:

  • 8,000 new jobs are created and £379 million is added to the economy for every one per cent growth in the UK legal services sector.
  • The sector grew by 8 per cent from 2014 to 2015.
  • Each £1 of extra turnover in the sector stimulates £1.39 in the rest of the economy.
  • Every 100 extra jobs in legal services supports a further 67 jobs.
  • An estimated 370,000 people are employed in legal services in the UK. 63 per cent are solicitors or employed by solicitor firms.
  • Net exports of legal services have grown by an average of 5.6 per cent per annum over the last 10 years, to £3.6 billion.

The report presents findings from two different studies based on input-output analytic tables published by the Office for National Statistics every five years.

According to the Gazette, these demonstrate the extent to which the legal sector supports activity elsewhere in the economy. In 2010 this ‘output multiplier’ was 2.39 – every extra £1 in demand for legal services supported £2.39 in spending across the economy. For every 100 extra jobs created in the sector, 167 jobs across the entire UK economy would have been created.

Based on these figures a 1% ‘positive shock’ to the legal services market would add £379m in gross value (GVA) added to the UK economy and 8,000 extra jobs. Conversely, a ‘negative shock’ would result in a £242m loss in gross value added in the initial year.

Introducing the study, the Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “The provision of expert legal services is fundamental to the success of business and commerce and underpins the very fabric of our society.

“From high street solicitors to global law firms, and from in-house solicitors to those who operate in alternative business models, our research shows that growth in legal services significantly contributes to the wider economy, boosting investment and jobs. Solicitors and employees of solicitor firms make up 63 per cent of the legal sector.”

The study shows that net exports of legal services have also grown in value by an average of 5.6 per cent per annum over the last 10 years, to £3.6 billion in 2014. The legal services sector is a net exporter, helping to offset the UK’s overall balance of payments deficit. English and Welsh law is the choice of law internationally and England and Wales is the jurisdiction of choice.

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Legal Aid Agency’s divide and rule tactics

The LAA still maintains that service under the new legal aid contracts will commence on 11 January as scheduled. A spokesperson for the agency said it was entering into contracts from 2 November. This despite 40 unsuccessful bidders who filed claims in the High Court last week, and another 50 expected to file claims this week.

If a claim is issued before a contract has been signed, the agency will be subject to an automatic suspension under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. The ‘Gazette’ understands that more than 70 of the 85 procurement areas could be affected. Read the full story

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