Tag Archive | "legal aid cuts"

The need for a review of legal aid


The Legal Aid Act has denied justice to the most vulnerable and must be reviewed. The government is committed to a review after three years but there is mounting evidence that it should come sooner.

On people trafficking, when LASPO came into force, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) didn’t include such claims within a mainstream contract category, instead bundling them into the “miscellaneous” category along with around 20 other types of case. The result is that organisations bringing these sorts of cases are severely limited in their ability to do so. The Lord Chancellor has agreed to conduct an urgent review of legal aid provisions for people bringing compensation claims against their traffickers.

The legal aid cuts have added to the strain on divorcees. Evidence gathered by Citizens Advice shows that nine out of 10 people who have gone through the family courts, under new rules that heavily restrict access to legal aid, suffer strain in their mental and physical health, working lives and finances. The system is not set up to deal with “litigants in person” (LiPs). Of those who chose to be litigants in person, 90% reported a negative impact on their everyday lives.

Three years after the government scrapped legal aid across swaths of civil law, more ‘advice deserts’ are materialising in the sectors that remain in scope. A number of areas have no cover at all. The Law Centres Network said: “Parliament’s intention in LASPO was that the most vulnerable people should still be able to access legal assistance. As evictions and homelessness rise steadily, a decline in housing legal aid uptake suggests that need is not being met.”

The Court of Appeal has upheld a challenge to the government’s changes to legal aid for victims of domestic violence. The Law Society backed the challenge brought by the Public Law Project. Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “The LASPO legal aid cuts have resulted in radical consequences for access to justice with the worst impact affecting the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society. Survivors of domestic violence should not be subjected to the over-strict tests required by the regulations as they now stand.”

The Low Commission was established by the legal education charity Legal Action Group in 2012 in the wake of the legal aid cuts to develop a strategy for access to advice and legal support in social welfare law in England and Wales. It was set up to examine the impact of legal aid cuts and develop a strategy to help ensure access to justice. It is to be wound up because of a lack of funds.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party last September one of his first acts was to announce an immediate review of legal aid. He said: “I have asked Willy Bach, the former Shadow Attorney General, to undertake an immediate review of the assault on Legal Aid by the Government over the last five years.”

He went on to say: “Even though it is clear that the consequences of Part One of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) are disastrous, the Government refuses to review the way in which the Act is working.”

Corbyn will agree with the 22 signatories, including Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC Chair of the Bar Council and Jonathan Smithers President of the Law Society, to a recent letter in the ‘Guardian’. Short and to the point it said: “We believe the legal aid reforms have had a severe impact on the ability of vulnerable people to access justice since they came into effect on 1 April 2013. We agree with the justice select committee that the cuts have limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most.”

It concluded: “The government has repeatedly said it will carry out a review to assess the full impact of the legal aid changes after three years. Today we call on ministers to fulfil this commitment at the earliest opportunity. We believe it is vital for government to ensure nobody is denied access to justice based on their ability to pay.”

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Champerty and Crowdfunding


Champerty is an agreement between the party suing in a lawsuit and another person, who agrees to finance and carry the lawsuit in return for a percentage of the recovery. In ‘The Guardian’ Joshua Rozenberg wrote: “When I first studied law, supporting someone else’s legal claim in exchange for a share of the potential damages was a crime called champerty. Now, it’s big business.” In the Court of Appeal Lord Neuberger MR said: “given that champerty is based on public policy, it is hard to see how arrangements such as the indemnity, at the very least in connection with litigation such as that in these cases, are against the public interest or undermine justice.”

Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the internet. It is a means of funding that allows individuals to make their ideas a reality with the power of the crowd, a form of alternative finance, which has emerged outside of the traditional financial system. The first online crowdfunded project is thought to have occured in 1997. Rock band Marillion were unable to afford to tour after the release of their seventh album so American fans used the then fledgling internet to raise $60,000 so they could play in the US

The government’s sweeping cuts to legal aid made it inevitable that someone would come up with a new way to plug some gaps in access to justice. Joshua Rozenberg introduced Julia Salasky, a former associate at the City firm Linklater, who has launched CrowdJustice, a legal crowdfunder. It is the first of its kind in the UK. It selects public interest cases, publicises them on its website, and invites the public to fund them. What’s different is that the funders are donors rather than investors.

Salasky says CrowdJustice is a way to fight a public interest case while eliminating at least some of the financial pressure. She says. “I think it’s hugely important work. Lawyers in this area are increasingly looking for ways to fill the gap because, I don’t want to overstate it, access to law for vulnerable people really is in jeopardy.”

The platform was launched just a few months ago, but has already attracted a range of cases both large and small, including some that could set important legal precedents. Salasky said “We are emphatically not a replacement for legal aid. But access to the courts is a democratic right.”

Salasky says it is vital to understand that it is not only people poor enough to be affected by legal aid cuts who need assistance. “The barriers to entry in terms of cost can be very high. It’s always been hard, but it’s getting much, much harder. Even if your lawyers are doing it pro-bono, even if your lawyers are doing it no win, no fee, there are still huge costs to even crossing the threshold of the court. And that’s true for all sorts of cases.”

Ultimately, says Salasky, crowdfunding empowers individuals and communities to do something that can achieve social change through the law. “That’s an extraordinary thing to be able to do.” On her website she says: “The law should be available to everyone, big and small…CrowdJustice gives you the tools to raise funds, mobilise your community and publicise your issue.”

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Law students overturn 95% of ‘fit for work’ judgements


A group of Bristol law students have won £1million back for claimants wrongly declared ‘fit for work’ by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The work capability assessment (WCA) has proved hugely controversial since its introduction under the last Labour government. It was expanded rapidly under the Coalition where the tests, then run by Atos, became notorious for causing stress and harm for many who undergo it. It has been dogged by huge administrative delays and appeal backlogs.
Read the full story

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News from the front


On the second day of nationwide protests against new contracts and fee cuts it was announced that criminal solicitors voted overwhelmingly in favour of individual direct action over the government’s legal aid cuts. Read the full story

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Early axe time


The budget is fixed for 8 July but Chancellor Osborne could not wait that long. Like a boy who wants to play with a new toy, Osborne clearly wants to use his new freedom to recommit himself to his cuts. Freed from the constraints of coalition he is rolling out his austerity plans in full splendour.

Last week, in an unexpected announcement, he identified £4.5bn of savings this year in departmental budgets, through a sell-off of national assets and spending cuts. Government departments have been ordered to find £3bn in savings this year, and the chancellor says he will also raise £1.5bn from the sale of the government’s 30% stake in Royal Mail. Read the full story

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Legal aid cuts “threat to democracy”


More than 100 judges, peers, prominent lawyers and doctors working in the civil and criminal justice system have called on the incoming government to restore legal aid to prevent “widespread miscarriages of justice.”

In an open letter to the ‘Guardian’ last Saturday, the signatories – who include former appeal court judges, a chief inspector of prisons and a reviewer of terrorism legislation – condemn cuts made by the coalition government for depriving “hundreds of thousands of people” access to justice. Read the full story

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Promises, promises


When the coalition came in they made a refreshing start by throwing out some of Labour’s worst excesses on civil liberties. Together the two parties saw off the kneejerk demand for 42 days’ pre-charge detention, prefiguring the later coalition partnership which did, for a time, seem to have at least some feel for freedom. ID cards were abandoned, DNA samples of innocent citizens were destroyed, and – with Ken Clarke at the Ministry of Justice – there was an overdue attempt to challenge mass incarceration. Read the full story

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Unlucky seven


The court of appeal has ruled that exceptional legal aid funding should be made available for those fighting deportation in difficult immigration cases..

There has been widespread criticism of the way in which the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) resists providing support despite explicit legal provision in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) for funding in “exceptional cases.”
Read the full story

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Judicial reviews


In his clearest rationalisation so far of why judicial review cases should be limited, Chris Grayling accused pressure groups of exploiting costly legal procedures to delay legislation, planning permissions and deportation decisions. “We have seen [judicial review] being used as a tactical tool rather than a vehicle for an individual to right a wrong,” Grayling told the House of Lords constitutional committee.

Another reason could be that Grayling is making a habit of losing judicial reviews, with two rebuffs in as many weeks.

The first came with a challenge on the consultation stage of the legal aid cuts. The case had been brought by the LCCSA and the CLSA, which said the consultation was unlawful. In an extraordinary criticism of a Cabinet minister, Jason Coppel QC, for the claimants, told the High Court that the challenge was not merely against the office of the lord chancellor but the present incumbent. He said it was ‘particularly striking’ that Grayling had become ‘personally involved’ in the process and had created much of the ‘unfairness’ himself. He said the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the reforms amounted to a ‘caricature of fairness’, and an ‘exercise in suppressing information’ and ‘empty assurances’.

Mr Justice Burnett granted permission to apply for judicial review. He said “The broad indications given in the consultation paper of the considerations which would determine the outcome did not, in my judgment, enable consultees meaningfully to respond. Something clearly did go wrong. The failure was so unfair as to result in illegality.”

LCCSA president Nicola Hill said: “This is a great day for justice. It shows that no one, not even the justice secretary and lord chancellor, Mr Grayling, is above the rule of law.” Bill Waddington, chairman of the CLSA, said that it was “a damning indictment of the lord chancellor.”

Then a court judge found another consultation exercise unfair, this time to mesothelioma victims, in MoJ’s second judicial review defeat in weeks. The case revolved around restrictions that the MoJ tried to impose, under Laspo 2012, on claimants diagnosed with the asbestos-related condition mesothelioma. There was supposed to be a public consultation assessing the impact on mesothelioma patients before the provision was extended to cover their specific cases.

Mr Justice William Davis declared that the exercise carried out by the MoJ last year was inadequate. “The issue is whether [the justice secretary] conducted a proper review of the likely effect of the Laspo reforms on mesothelioma claims. I conclude that he did not. No reasonable lord chancellor faced with the duty imposed on him by…the act would have considered that the exercise in fact carried out fulfilled that duty”, the judge said.

Nicola Hill said: “Yet again Chris Grayling breaks the rules. Yet again he’s ticked off by one of the country’s highest courts. In short he’s been held to account by a process, judicial review, which he’s seeking to restrict.”

At the same time Grayling, who is the first non-lawyer to hold the post of lord chancellor for 440 years, appeared before the House of Lords constitution committee, which is holding an inquiry into the role of lord chancellor. He was grilled for more than an hour on the constitutional role and whether his position as justice secretary caused a conflict in his commitment to the rule of law. He told committee members that it was an advantage for a non-lawyer to be lord chancellor, particularly at a time when legal aid cuts have to be made.

In response to Grayling’s evidence, Bar Council chair Nicholas Lavender said the lord chancellor should be a ‘champion’ of the justice system as well as guardian of the constitution. “He is entrusted with lead responsibility in government to maintain the delicate balance between, on the one hand, upholding the rule of law and protecting the independence of the judiciary and, on the other hand, respecting the interests of the executive.

“Legal expertise is essential to fulfil such a unique role” he said. “The lord chancellor should be a very senior lawyer.”

Posted in Criminal Justice, Legal AidComments (0)

Public opposition to legal aid cuts


Public opposition to legal aid cuts is hardening, with fewer than one in four now backing the government’s austerity drive, according to an opinion poll released last week to mark the service’s 65th anniversary.

Since coming to power in 2010, ministers at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have had a clear agenda of wanting to cut the legal aid budget as part of the government’s programme to reduce the public spending deficit. In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 introduced a radical reduction in the type of cases covered by the civil legal aid scheme. Read the full story

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