Thursday, 27 May 2010

Legal aid winners

Awards ceremonies can be tedious, but last night's Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards proved to be inspiring and surprising, with the winners all demonstrating great commitment to their clients and an instant government response to a legal question.

'His devotion to his clients is routinely exceptional' was one of the comments made by a fellow lawyer who nominated David Jockelson, a solicitor at Miles & Partners. Jockelson, who also qualified as a therapist to assist in his work, won family legal aid lawyer of the year. Kathy Meade, a solicitor at Tower Hamlets Law Centre, won social welfare lawyer of the year and gave an impromptu speech that spoke to the hearts of all in the audience, made up of legal aid lawyers and luminaries from the legal world. She could not help reflecting on the plight of a client who had been referred to her by the social services department just a few hours before she attended last night's event. She had to drop some other work she was doing to advise him, but she explained he was in a desperate state having been made homeless with six children. Having talked through his problems over the phone she made an emergency appointment to see him today: 'Law Centres have their backs to the wall and many have closed, but I will only be paid the housing fixed fee of £174. No way will my time be properly funded under the legal aid system for this case.'

Many of the lawyers nominated had worked on ground-breaking cases. Peter Mahy from Howells solicitors, who won the criminal defence lawyer award, challenged the government’s retention of DNA samples from people not convicted of a crime, on behalf of his clients. The case, S and Marper v UK, was lost at every level in the domestic courts before succeeding in the European Court of Human Rights. John McSweeney, who is the managing partner of Howells, accepting the award on behalf of Mahy, said: 'It just goes to show you can knock a legal aid lawyer down. Do it three times in a row as happened in this case and they will still get back up again.' The new Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, who was sitting in the front row of the audience was asked from the stage if the UK government would abide by the decision. To the surprise of the audience, Grieve shot back confirming that the government would. This commitment is in line with the coalition agreement published last week. After last night it seems that implementation is happening quicker than expected.

The LALYs, as the awards are known, have been running for eight years and are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. They recognise the achievements of legal aid lawyers in the front line of providing services in both criminal and civil legal aid. Legal Action magazine is the media partner for the awards. The other winners last night were Adam Straw from Tooks Chambers (young legal aid barrister), Katherine Craig from Christian Khan (young legal aid solicitor), Sophy Miles from Miles & Partners (mental health lawyer), Amie Henshall from Parker Rhodes Hickmotts (immigration lawyer), Mark Henderson from Doughty Street Chambers (legal aid barrister), Just for Kids Law/Lawrence & Co youth department (legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency) and Michael Mansfield QC (outstanding achievement award).

Photograph: Robert Aberman

Friday, 21 May 2010

New legal aid minister

It's been a bit of a wait, but we now have a new minister with responsibility for legal aid. His name is Jonathan Djanogly and he is the MP for Huntingdon, John Major's old seat. Djanogly is a qualified solicitor and was a partner in a large commercial firm.

Yesterday the coalition government published its policy programme. Included in the section on justice is the commitment to ' ... carry out a fundamental review of legal aid to make it work more efficiently'. It is an unfortunate choice of words as legal aid watchers will be aware that we have previously had a 'Fundamental Legal Aid Review', or FLA as it became known, in 2004. The FLA got lost, though, as a final report was never published. LAG believes that ministers did not like what the civil servants had come up with. Instead we got the Carter review, ordered by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and published in July 2006, the findings of which have been partially implemented over the last few years.

To be fair, in opposition the Conservatives did seem serious about trying to find new ways of getting money into the legal aid system, including a £200 contribution from all criminal clients and looking at 'polluter pays' methods of funding. So we will see what Jonathan Djanogly and this latest review of legal aid comes up with. Implementing new funding methods could be wrapped up in a new or amended Access to Justice Act, which could also deal with bringing the Legal Services Commission under the control of the Ministry of Justice as recommended by the recent Magee Review. Perhaps the Queen's Speech will contain details of this next week?

The really interesting part of the justice section of the coalition's plans is the commitment to a 'rehabilitation revolution'. The coalition wants independent providers, paid for by the savings made by introducing the policy, to reduce reoffending. Does this mean the prisons building programme is going to be put on hold and the savings made put into the scheme? Let us hope so. However, the programme also commits the government to a sentencing policy review. A harsher sentencing policy, if this is what is intended, would not necessarily sit easily with the planned 'rehabilitation revolution'.

Picture: Ministry of Justice

Monday, 17 May 2010

Civil liberties policy: more liberal than conservative?

A few days on from the tumultuous events of last week and the UK is settling down to coalition government. Details of specific policies have yet to emerge, but the signs are hopeful as regards human rights and civil liberties.

It was plain that repeal of the Human Rights Act would be a deal-breaker for any Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition and so we have seen no mention of the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to replace it. At point ten of the document summarising the deal between the parties, the new government commits itself to passing: 'A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill'. This policy has Liberal Democrat fingerprints all over it as the party was touting a draft Freedom Bill at its last conference. It seems that many of Labour's measures which are perceived as anti-civil liberties are to be trashed. Out will go ID cards, the National Identity register and biometric passports. Also included is the reform of the libel laws and the Freedom of Information Act, the restoration of rights to non-violent protest and greater protections for the DNA database.

Perhaps part of the reason for the Conservative swing towards a more liberal civil liberties agenda is to save cash. Both parties claim savings can be made by scrapping the ID cards scheme - described as a 'laminated poll tax' by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats also claimed in their manifesto that £795 million could be saved by cancelling the prison-building programme and replacing prison sentences of less than six months with community sentences. Such measures play well with those close to penal policy who know prison is hopeless at rehabilitation. LAG believes an opportunity exists to take on the mistaken policy assumption that 'prison works' and go for real reform.

There is much sense in what is proposed by the new government and there are some opportunities for reform, but such measures will need to be passed quickly while goodwill for the new government exists and discipline on the Conservative backbenches remains firm.

Photograph: Legal Action Group

Thursday, 13 May 2010

LAG news blog joins Guardian Legal Network

LAG is pleased to announce that the LAG news blog has become a member of the Guardian Legal Network, part of a new section of the Guardian website launched today which pioneers a new, interactive approach to law coverage. The legal network brings together the best blogs and sites that cover legal affairs and developments from around the world, providing high-quality news, comment, analysis, blogs and multimedia.

Other features available at: include news, analysis and comment on the latest legal developments; a blog from Afua Hirsch, the Guardian's legal affairs correspondent; weekly blogs from legal commentators Joshua Rozenberg and Neil Rose; an online legal document store and the option to sign up for a weekly law e-mail called 'The Bundle'.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Clarke takes over at the MoJ

It has just been announced that Kenneth Clarke will become the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in David Cameron's cabinet.

He was called to the Bar in 1963 and is likely to be the most experienced member of Cameron's first cabinet, having held ministerial positions in every government over the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major eras. As a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, he will probably be disappointed not to have been offered one of the major economic portfolios. But the alliance with the Liberal Democrats has meant that many Conservatives with shadow portfolios have been bumped out of positions they might have hoped for in cabinet.

The new Lord Chancellor is famously fond of jazz, cigars and the odd pint of beer. His pro-European views led to him losing the Tory leadership when he contested it in 1997, 2001 and 2005. It will be interesting to see whether his appointment indicates a shift in Tory policy on criminal justice to the more progressive stance of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who stated in their election manifesto that they wanted to reduce prison numbers. Both Labour and the Conservatives pledged to expand prison places.

Ministers below cabinet level and the law officers should be announced over the next 24 hours and the LAG news blog will report on these as soon as we have details.

Photograph: Legal Action Group

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Legal aid and the election

In the run-up to the general election, LAG has been talking to politicians about their plans for legal aid. Labour indicated that legal aid would be subject to further cuts if it was re-elected. In contrast, the Conservatives would not be drawn on whether they would make cuts, but said that they would initiate a review of legal aid if they were to form the next government. They also want to put in place alternative methods for funding legal aid. The Liberal Democrats probably have the best party policy on legal aid and certainly the most progressive policies on civil liberties in general. When asked, though, they would also give no guarantees about their budget plans for legal aid. On a positive note, both Labour and the Conservatives told LAG that they will preserve the expenditure on social welfare law if elected.

One of the ideas which the Tories favour to raise more cash for legal aid is a levy on the interest on money held by solicitors on behalf of clients. They give the example of France, where 300 million Euros are raised for legal aid services in this way. They have also floated the idea of a levy of £200 on every criminal legal aid client to help fund the system. Even if these ideas are implemented (and they would face strong opposition), given the state of the public finances LAG strongly suspects that any new money will not be in addition to the current legal aid budget.

In the current spending review period which ends in March 2011, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has had to find £1 billion in cuts. In this year’s budget, the government committed it to finding a further £360 million. LAG is struggling to see how these cuts, which amount to over a tenth of the MoJ’s budget, can be made without serious damage to the administration of justice. All the political parties are caught in a budgeting cleft stick of preserving expenditure on the NHS and education, which means the inevitable spending cuts will fall disproportionately on other departments including the MoJ.

Photograph: Legal Action Group