Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Justice for All at the Labour party conference

Supporters of Justice for All (JfA) have been meeting MPs, lords and delegates at the Labour party conference this week, to build support for the campaign against the legal aid cuts. At a crowded fringe meeting yesterday, organised by the Law Society and JfA, shadow ministers Andy Slaughter and Lord Bach condemned the government's plans for legal aid and promised to continue the support for amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

LAG's director Steve Hynes spoke on behalf of JfA at the meeting. He stressed the need to 'pick our battles', singling out clinical negligence, the definition of domestic violence, social welfare law and the independence of the decision-making process as areas which should be fought hard at the report stage of the bill in the House of Commons and House of Lords. 'The network of firms and not for profit organisations across the country will be devastated if the bill is passed without amendment, leaving the public with nowhere to go to get advice locally.'

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, vice president of the Law Society, began by emphasising the principle of the rule of law, which she said these reforms put at risk, undermining the central tenet that no-one is above or outside the law, and that rights must be enforceable to be valid. She defended the role of lawyers in the system, saying litigation should always be a last resort but that consulting a lawyer can be a very good first step. And she picked up particularly on the effect these reforms would have on children and on women who are victims of domestic violence, on those bringing cases under conditional fee arrangements (who would have to pay their legal costs out of the winnings under the reforms), and the dangers of making areas of advice such as community care only accessible via the telephone.

Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister who will lead Labour's opposition to the bill in the House of Lords, pledged: 'We will try to at least mitigate the worst effects of the bill' by supporting amendments in the Lords. Lord Bach condemned the proposals as 'practical and financial madness', which will cost more and leave people queuing at their MP's surgery with nowhere else to turn. He defended Labour's record on maintaining legal aid for social welfare law, and expressed his disappointment with the Liberal Democrats who he said 'have a proud record of supporting legal aid, sometimes holding us - correctly - to account as we changed the system in government' but who are now voting through the bill.

Andy Slaughter MP, the shadow legal aid minister, said the proposals were 'the most sustained attack on access to justice since legal aid began', and suggested the government's motivation was ideological as well as financial. He promised Labour's continued opposition to the measures, particularly around the cuts to social welfare law, and in answer to a question he promised that Labour would not be cutting social welfare law were they in power. He also drew particular attention to the proposed definition of domestic violence, citing a Liverpool law firm which estimates that only five of their current 278 clients who are victims of domestic violence would be eligible for legal aid under the new definition.

The feedback which JfA has had this week from members of the House of Lords has been positive over the chances of amending the bill. They believe that support from cross-benchers, who are politically independent, as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords who are concerned about provisions in the bill, will be crucial in winning concessions from the government.

JfA will be attending the Conservative party conference next to meet politicians and delegates to build support for the campaign. A fringe meeting will be held next Tuesday afternoon (4 October) at 12.30 pm at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, 38-40 Peter Street, Manchester.

Picture: LAG

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Liberal Democrat 'disquiet' over legal aid cuts

Justice for All (JfA), the campaign against legal aid and other cuts in legal advice services, held a fringe meeting this morning at the Liberal Democrat party conference.

In a strong speech, James Sandbach, from JfA, told the meeting that the areas of law the government is preparing to take out of the scope of the legal aid system affected the 'most vulnerable in society' and that the proposals amounted to a '66 per cent cut to civil legal aid'. Sandbach said, 'It is disappointing that the government has targeted social welfare law cases as this is the gritty law that affects ordinary people’s lives'.

The government intends to cut all help with benefits, employment and debt cases, as well as severely limiting advice on housing and other civil law cases. On Saturday morning the conference approved a resolution critical of the government’s plans for the reform of welfare benefits. The resolution, which was drafted by Sandbach, argued that claimants going to appeal should be 'given access to adequate support and legal representation'. At the fringe meeting this morning the justice minister Lord McNally dismissed this saying it was a 'Saturday morning resolution, which cannot mean that parliamentarians have to follow it', although he conceded he had to take account of his party’s views on the issue.

Lord McNally, speaking about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is due to receive its first reading in the House of Lords in October or November, said that while it was 'worth campaigning on the bill' he could not promise any major concessions, as he 'did not want to offer false hope'. However, he conceded that he is open to 'advice and informed briefings' and would take concerns back to his boss Kenneth Clarke, the Secretary of State for Justice.

Alan Beith, a Liberal Democrat MP and the chairperson of the justice select committee, spoke more freely, reiterating the committee’s criticisms of the government’s plans, particularly around the cuts to social welfare law. He said he believed that the £20m Cabinet Office fund announced earlier in the year for the not for profit sector could only be a temporary measure.

The fringe meeting was hosted jointly by JfA and the Law Society. Nick Fluck, deputy vice-president of the Law Society, was critical of the government for talking about 'legal spend, rather than ensuring justice'. He spoke of the need for the government to improve the efficiency of the courts, to introduce 'polluter pays policies' to recover the cost of legal aid and the need for better decision making in government departments to offset the demand for legal aid. Referring to the proposals to reform the funding of damages cases included in the Legal Aid Bill, he said that 'insurers were very pleased about the proposals'. He argued that while they will reduce risk for insurance companies he was doubtful whether any savings will be passed on to the public.

'Despite the minister’s comments it is clear that there is much disquiet among many Liberal Democrats about the impact of the proposed legal aid cuts. Justice for All will hope to build on this to gather support for the bill to be amended once it reaches the Lords,' said James Sandbach speaking to LAG immediately after the fringe meeting.

Legal Action Group sits on the JfA campaign steering group.

Pic: Justice for All

Friday, 16 September 2011

Downs and out!

It emerged last week that Carolyn Downs, the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), is leaving to join the Local Government Association (LGA) as its chief executive. It seems curious to LAG that the world has learnt of her departure not from the LSC or the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but from her new employer which announced her appointment in a press release. Her departure is also rotten timing given the uncertainty over the LSC’s future and the reasons for the departure of her predecessor.

The chief executive’s job at the LSC has proved to be something of a poisoned chalice in recent years. Carolyn Downs stepped into the role as a stop gap when her predecessor, Carolyn Regan, quit after three and half years at the LSC in March last year. At the time LAG said that we believed that CarolynRegan had been made the scapegoat for long-standing financial management and other problems at the LSC. Prior to Carolyn Regan’s departure the commission had been without a permanent boss for over a year. This was due to the then chief executive, Clare Dodgson, being on long term sick leave. Clare Dodgson had joined the LSC in June 2003, replacing Steve Orchard who’d held the top position at the LSC, and its predecessor the Legal Aid Board, for 14 years. In May 2005 Clare Dodgson suffered a serious back injury while at home, after which she did not return to work and this led to her eventually having to agree to resign in June the following year.

The publication of the Magee review on the future of the LSC was the catalyst for Carolyn Regan’s departure. In his report Sir Ian Magee was critical of the duplication of policy functions between the LSC and the MoJ and recommended that the commission be taken under the direct control of the government, (this change of status to an executive agency is included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill). More importantly Sir Ian’s report found serious weaknesses in the financial management at the LSC, which were also reflected in critical National Audit Office reports.

In a surprise move the week Magee’s report was published, Carolyn Regan’s resignation and the appointment of Carolyn Downs on an “interim basis” were announced by the chair of the LSC, Sir Bill Callaghan. Carolyn Downs moved from her position as Deputy Permanent Secretary at the MoJ to take up the post at the LSC. The Board of Commissioners at the LSC had to agree to her appointment with the MoJ. LAG assumes that any temporary or permanent replacement will have to be agreed by both parties again.

In the short time she has been at the LSC, Carolyn Downs has enjoyed a good relationship with providers, despite continuing disagreements with them. Her move to the LGA fits with her background as she was the chief executive of Shropshire County Council for six years. However, given that the commission has yet to make the transition to executive agency status, LAG asks would it not have been better for the MoJ to persuade her to stay on to oversee this or maybe she believed that it was better to get out while the going was good?

Now Downs is out, what about her successor? The ideal candidate would need to be both a brilliant administrator and diplomat. The diplomatic aspects of the job are the most important and to this end building a good relationship with the suppliers of legal aid is a given. LAG would argue that this is superseded by the need for a chief executive who would fight for legal aid in the corridors of power. This means standing up to ministers to tell them when they have got it wrong. To do this successfully, the head of legal aid will have to tread a fine line between diplomatic persuasion and career suicide- not an easy task.

Steve Hynes

Monday, 12 September 2011

The true cost of the legal aid cuts?

Each government department tends to work on its own budgets in isolation. This can be a problem, especially when cuts are being considered. The order has been handed down from the Treasury to make cash savings and officials in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are scrambling around to find these, with little regard to their knock-on impact.

Citizens Advice argues that the state has to pick up the cost of homelessness, poor health and the other consequences of people not receiving advice on civil justice problems. It has published research to back this up which shows the savings other government departments make when people get early advice. LAG has taken the figures which Citizens Advice produced and combined these with the government’s proposed cuts in legal aid for housing, benefits, debt and employment, to arrive at figures which give the true cost of the legal aid cuts (see below).

Our research shows that £49m of expenditure on legal advice saves the government £286.2 million in other expenditure. In other words - £1 of spending on civil legal help saves the government around £5 in other public expenditure.

Category of Law

Reduction in legal aid (08/09 figures)[i]

Savings per £1 spent on legal aid [ii]

Total savings to the state from expenditure on legal aid





Welfare benefits














Earlier this year the House of Commons Justice Committee stressed in its report on the proposals for legal aid that it was surprised that the government was introducing changes to civil legal aid for cases such as these, 'without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse'. The Committee, which is chaired by the well regarded Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Beith, suggested the government needs to take this into account 'before taking a final decision on implementation'. [iii]

Last week, apart from a few minor changes, the bill committee in the House of Commons considering the legislation which will introduce the legal aid cuts rejected proposals to reverse them. A third reading of the bill is expected to take place late next month. This will be an opportunity for the House of Commons to get the government to think again about these cuts which are penny wise, but pound foolish to the public purse.

[i] Legal aid reform: scope changes, MoJ, 028, page 17.

[ii] Towards a business case for legal aid, Citizens Advice, July 2010.

[iii] Justice Committee Report, page 54.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Legal Aid Bill amendments

Legal aid for housing cases threatened

The committee scrutinising the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill resumes its work today (Tuesday 6 September). A number of amendments have been put forward for consideration by members of the committee which includes the justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP and his Labour opposition counterpart, Andrew Slaughter MP.

Amendments from the government, proposed by Jonathan Djanogly, include a number which alter the current provisions in Schedule 1 of the bill regarding housing law. The grounds on which a tenant can counterclaim in a housing repossession case are widened, but it is unclear if the common counterclaim of disrepair has been brought back into scope. LAG believes this is a glaring anomaly which needs to be addressed as without it irresponsible landlords in both the public and private sectors will have no incentive to keep properties in a good state of repair.

It is also not clear if the government’s proposed amendments reinstate the right of tenants to claim damages if they are illegally evicted by a landlord. Many tenants do not wish to return to the property which they have been illegally evicted from, due to the distress this has caused. As the proposals in the Legal Aid Bill now stand, tenants in this position would not be able to obtain legal aid to assist them in fighting their cases. LAG believes legal aid should be reinstated in illegal eviction cases as the right to claim damages discourages landlords from trying to force tenants out illegally.

Labour members of the bill committee are moving a number of amendments which reinstate cuts the government has proposed to the scope of the legal aid scheme. For example, Andrew Slaughter is moving an amendment which would reinstate legal aid in medical negligence cases. Kate Green MP, another Labour member of the committee, is proposing an amendment which would widen the definition of domestic violence. This is a move widely supported by women’s rights groups including Rights of Women and the Women’s Institute.

LAG argues that the definition adopted by the Association of Chief Police Officers should be included in the bill. This includes psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse which takes place 'between adults ... who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender and sexuality'. LAG understands that the government is resisting adopting this wider definition, but is likely to face sustained pressure to do so in the coming weeks.

Plaid Cymru's member of the committee, Elfyn Llwyd MP, has also given notice of a number of amendments. It is believed that he might play a pivotal role in persuading government members of the committee, which include the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, to back amendments which are against the government’s line.

The bill committee will also meet on Thursday this week and next week, before breaking for three weeks for the party conferences. The government wants to move the Legal Aid Bill to its next stage in the House of Lords on 13 October, but will be hard pressed to do so, due to the number of amendments which organisations concerned with the provisions in the bill want to be considered.

Image: LAG