Monday, 22 November 2010

Civil law to suffer bulk of proposed legal aid cuts

The green paper on legal aid published last week outlines proposals on reductions in fees and in the scope of legal aid in order to make savings of around £350m. The bulk of the cuts, £279m, will fall on civil legal aid.

A telephone advice line is proposed to replace much of the service people currently get from civil legal aid providers. LAG supports the use of telephone services as they can be useful in dealing with many problems and in signposting people to face-to-face advice if they need it. Such services, though, cannot replace legal aid as the results of our recent opinion poll survey indicate that the poorest people are also least likely to use telephone and internet services. These people are therefore the most reliant on local face-to-face legal advice services.

If these proposed cuts are implemented, just under 550,000 less people will receive help with civil legal problems. The civil legal aid system helped just over 1 million people last year and so this cut represents a 50 per cent cut in civil legal aid services to the public. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is aiming to implement these cuts from October 2012. LAG understands that the proposed changes to legal aid will be included in legislation and that the first reading of an Act of Parliament to put this in place has been scheduled for spring 2011.

The cuts include taking out of the scope of the legal aid scheme welfare benefits, debt, employment, education and clinical negligence cases. It is proposed that housing law cases are cut back to include only homelessness and disrepair (non-damages). Divorce and private law children cases will be cut from scope saving £178m and the total saving from cutting non-family civil legal aid is around £100m. Around £900 million per year is currently spent on civil legal aid and so this represents just under a third of the budget.

The cuts fall disproportionately on the services which help people with the everyday problems of life such as debt and housing. Sixty-eight per cent of the civil legal help scheme which gives initial help and advice on legal problems is to be cut. Such deep cuts have not been proposed for any other public services.

The bulk of the cuts in non-family civil legal help will fall on the not for profit (NFP) sector. We estimate that out of a total cut of £64m in legal help, over £50m will be cut from local NFP providers such as Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres. These organisations are already experiencing deep cuts from other branches of government. For example, £46m is due to be cut from the Financial Inclusion Fund next March and individual local councils, which fund 50-70 per cent of the costs of running these organisations in total, are also cutting back. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council recently cut £180,000 from its grant to the Law Centre in the borough.

In addition to the cuts in scope, the government intends to introduce a ten per cent reduction in fees in both criminal and civil cases. It has also announced its intention to introduce a competitive process for the allocation of legal aid work. A further consultation paper on introducing this for criminal work will be published next year. According to the green paper, a pilot of a competitive bid round for criminal legal aid work could commence in April 2012 and the government’s intention is to introduce a similar process for civil contracts sometime after 2013.

The MoJ has published a set of impact assessments on the proposals for legal aid. The paper on the impact of the scope changes shows that there would be a reduction in legal help cases of 502,000. The equalities impact assessment acknowledges the difficulties in breaking down the available data into gender, race and disability categories.

A green paper on Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on reform of the rules for funding civil litigation was published at the same time as the green paper on legal aid. Success fees and after the event insurance costs would no longer be recoverable from the losers. To compensate claimants, a ten per cent uplift in damages awards is proposed. LAG’s annual lecture next week is to be given by Lord Justice Jackson (see our website for full details).

The green papers are available to downoad at the MoJ website. Responses to the consultations have to be returned to the MoJ by noon on 14 February 2011. LAG is urging everyone with an interest in legal aid and access to justice to submit a response to the consultations.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Legal aid green paper expected today

According to a story in the Times this morning, and other media sources, the green paper on the future of legal aid will be announced today (15 November) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Included in the paper will be plans to cut at least £350m from the budget. It is believed that the paper will detail suggested cuts in police station advice, but with the bulk of the cuts falling on civil work. It would appear family legal aid for work related to divorce is in the government's sights, along with representation in immigration cases and medical negligence claims. It is not clear if any cut will fall on social welfare law (SWL), though this had been suggested as likely by some sources close to the government over the summer.

Social welfare law: what is fair?

At LAG's conference last Friday (12 November), we released the findings from a nationwide opinion poll on the public’s views on legal advice services with an emphasis on the most common types of SWL problem (ie, problems to do with housing, benefits, money/debt and employment law).

It is heartening that at the core of the research findings is a sense of fair play. The British public overwhelmingly believe that even if they are unlikely to use the services themselves, their fellow citizens should have access to state-funded legal advice when things go wrong in their lives. We accept that cuts in legal aid should not be reduced to a popularity contest between different areas of law as we recognise that some types of legal aid work might not enjoy popular public support, but are essential to guarantee civil liberties and to maintain the rule of law. We do believe, though, that the results of the survey send a loud and clear message to the government that publicly funded SWL services matter to the public and therefore such services should not be seen as an easy option for cuts.

These are the key findings from the research:

1. Around two-fifths of the people experiencing a SWL problem went to a legal advice centre such as a Citizens Advice Bureau and around one-fifth went to a solicitor.

2. The lowest social group (DE) were the most reliant on local advice centres for help with these problems and they were the least likely to use internet and telephone services or to be able to travel far to access advice.

3. A large majority of people, while they might not use advice centres, viewed them as the appropriate place to go for advice on these types of problems.

4. People from the lowest social group were twice as likely as other groups to experience problems with money such as debts and benefits. Problems with employment and housing were the most evenly distributed across all social groups.

Respondents were asked two questions regarding their opinions on what should be a priority for government funding for legal advice. The key findings were as follows:

1. Roughly eight out of ten people (84 per cent) believed that advice on civil law should be either free to everyone or to those on below average earnings. Only one in ten believe that such services should be available only to people on benefits.

2. Support for legal services paid for by the state is very consistent across social classes.

3. Respondents believed that the top priorities for funding legal advice were child protection (70 per cent) and housing (67 per cent). Employment (53 per cent) was the third priority. Benefits and debt advice were seen as the next priorities (36 per cent each) and divorce and relationship breakdown was the lowest priority (17 per cent).

4. There was a remarkable degree of unanimity between social classes about what the priorities should be for advice.

5. While state funding for divorce-related work has least public support, LAG concluded that if there was domestic violence involved, such cases might have enjoyed higher levels of support.

A full copy of the report Social welfare law: what is fair? is available from our website. LAG intends to follow up the research and hopes to publish further reports on the public’s views on civil law legal services as well as developing a set of policy proposals based on the research.

Image: Legal Action Group

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Law Centre fights back against the LSC

South Manchester Law Centre was claiming victory this week in the first round of its legal battle against the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to stay open.

The Law Centre, which is under threat of closure after having cash withdrawn from it by the LSC and Manchester City Council, brought a judicial review claim against the LSC to challenge its decision to withdraw the bulk of the Law Centre’s funding for immigration work. The judge in the case, after a day of legal argument on Monday, ruled that two key elements in the tendering process under which the LSC awarded the contracts for the work could be illegal and that the case should proceed to a full hearing. The Law Centre expects the case to be heard early next month.

Paul Morris from the Law Centre told LAG, 'The ruling throws into doubt the LSC’s entire national immigration and asylum legal aid contract. The judge said that he believed the winner takes all approach to the contracts in Manchester was irrational.'

The case will turn on the criteria adopted by the LSC to select between the different organisations applying for contracts. The LSC adopted criteria which, according to Morris, were unfair: 'The successful bidder scored a crucial single point more than the other providers just for putting in an application for level three accreditation. This accreditation has no practical value as it is of no help to clients.'

The LSC brought up a QC from London to present its case while the Law Centre had to rely on barristers from Manchester chambers Kenworthy's, working for no fee, to present its case. The Law Centre has had other support in its campaign to stay open. Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, turned out to join a demonstration outside the court to support the Law Centre. They were joined by supporters of Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, which is facing similar cuts after losing out in the tender bid round.

'We are delighted with this result especially given the LSC, at public expense, sent one of the country’s leading QCs from London to argue its case. For a small community-based organisation such as ours to win in the High Court is a substantial achievement,' said Morris.

All of the immigration law providers who lost out in the tender round will be following what happens in Manchester closely. Like the Law Centre, many are not convinced that the level three criterion adds anything to client services and argue it penalises smaller organisations, which provide good quality services, but which do not have the resources to invest in acquiring the accreditation.

Image: South Manchester Law Centre