Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Justice Committee slams government’s legal aid plans

In a report published today, the Justice Committee is critical of the government’s plans for the reform of legal aid. The committee is concerned that 'vulnerable groups of people will be disproportionately hit by the changes'. The report stops short of calling on the government to abandon the planned cuts in legal aid. It instead calls on the government 'to look again' at other ways in which cash can be saved and to better evaluate the impact of the cuts before implementing them.

LAG gave evidence to the committee detailing the likely consequences of the proposed cuts, which will see areas of work such as advice on family, housing and debt problems severely cut back. Help with some legal problems such as employment and education will be cut completely. LAG fears that the number of providers will be cut from just over 2,000 to less than 900, which would create advice deserts, even in the areas of work which the government proposes to keep in scope, such as domestic violence and child protection cases. The committee accepted that the government needs to undertake a more thorough evaluation of the impact of these cuts in the provision of legal aid services across the country.

The definition of domestic violence is recognised by the committee as an important issue. It calls on the government to widen this definition to include cases of non-physical abuse and to await the results of the Family Justice Review Panel's work before finalising any changes to the family legal aid system.

In another recommendation supported by LAG, the committee asks the government to consider more support to help organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and other advice centres to deal with the impact of both legal aid and other cuts. The committee heard evidence from Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, on the government’s Transition Fund for voluntary organisations and calls on the government to consider a second round of this funding to help these organisations cope with the cuts.

Part of the committee’s report which is most critical of the government concerns its failure to consider the impact of the withdrawal of services in social welfare law. It accepted the evidence from organisations such as Citizens Advice, which argued that the provision of advice at an early stage resolves problems before they become critical and cost the state more to resolve. The committee requests that the government evaluate the impact of early advice on other government departments before going ahead with the proposed cuts.

Another welcome recommendation is that departments of state, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, are given financial penalties if they fail to get their decisions right first time. LAG believes that the introduction of such a 'polluter pays' policy could be used to fund legal services and would lead to many more decisions being made correctly first time round, which is what the public wants.

*An article on LAG’s response to the Justice Committee report will be included in May’s Legal Action magazine.

Picture (LAG): Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the Justice Committee.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Legal aid on the march

Many legal aid lawyers and advice workers joined the TUC march on Saturday to protest at the government plans to cut legal aid and other cuts in publicly funded legal advice services. They were joined by a large contingent of Gurkhas and their families.

The Gurkha Justice Campaign successfully challenged the immigration rules, winning a case in the High Court. It was represented by solicitors Howe and Co, which brought a number of cases on behalf of Gurkhas who had served with the British army using legal aid funds. After a high profile campaign led by actress Joanna Lumley, the government conceded in May 2009 that any Gurkha who had served in the armed forces for four years or more should be allowed to remain in the UK.

The Justice for All and the Law Society's Sound Off for Justice campaigns joined forces on the day and led a march of supporters from the Royal Courts of Justice to join the main march as it made its way through central London to Hyde Park. Young Legal Aid Lawyers with its banner also attended the march. Tooks Chambers and Thompsons solicitors both had their own banners on the march. Sound Off for Justice brought a choir, which was accompanied by two saxophonists. They led marchers in singing protest songs.

Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, was at the demonstration: 'It was a very impressive turn out, with many firms of solicitors represented and a good many Law Centres and other not for profit agencies also attending. People are really concerned about the future of legal aid. Where will our clients go for help if these cuts go ahead?'

Image: LAG. See further pictures here:

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Lawyers on the march

Supporters of the campaign group Justice for All will be joining the TUC march taking place this Saturday to protest over the proposed cuts to legal aid. LAG is one of the original members of the steering group for the campaign and is urging anyone concerned about legal aid and access to justice to join the march behind the Justice for All banner.

Lawyers, advice workers and others working in legal aid services will be marching to highlight the government plans to cut civil legal aid. Housing, family and debt cases are among those targeted for the cuts. Legal aid for some areas of work, such as employment and education law, is set to be cut completely if the government goes ahead with its plans.

'It is very important that the potentially devastating cuts to legal aid are not lost in the bigger picture of the government cuts. These proposals will dramatically undermine access to justice for the most vulnerable members of society at just the time they need help to assert their rights. Everyone who cares about legal aid should join this protest and make their voice heard,' said Edward Kirton-Darling, a solicitor and a LAG board member. Edward Kirton-Darling will be attending the march with colleagues from the firm Hodge Jones & Allen LLP.

Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) will also be joining the march: 'It is important that we take every opportunity to tell the government that the brutal cuts proposed for legal aid are counterproductive and dangerous. YLAL members are committed to social justice but by slicing the legal aid budget in half, justice will become the preserve of the rich leading to increased financial and social costs. We hope the march will highlight just how many people care and will be affected by the cuts if the government chooses not to consider alternative ways to deal with the deficit.'

Justice for All marchers will be assembling from 10.15 am outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London. They will move off around 10.45 am to join the main march which is due to leave from Victoria Embankment between the Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges at 11 am. The march will then make its way through central London ending with a rally in Hyde Park. This is due to start at 1.30 pm.

LAG learnt last week that the response to the consultation on the proposed cuts published in November last year will not now be released by the Ministry of Justice as had been expected before Easter. Publication is not now anticipated until after the local elections and the referendum on voting reform taking place on 5 May. The first reading of the bill, which will include the reforms to the legal aid system, is also expected in May.

Image: Lady Justice delivers a Valentine's Day card from Justice for All to Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke last month.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

LAG believes that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been guilty of playing rather fast and loose in its interpretation of the figures on the impact of the proposed civil legal aid cuts.

The figure of 502,000 is quoted in the MoJ’s impact assessment on scope changes as the number of people who will lose out on access to civil legal advice services if the legal aid cuts, which were proposed in November last year, are implemented. The impact assessment was published at the same time as the green paper, Proposals for the reform of legal aid in England and Wales. The consultation closed on 14 February 2011. Over 5,000 responses were sent to the MoJ from both individuals and organisations concerned about the provision of legal aid services. We are currently waiting for the government’s response.

Clearly, at just over half a million, this is a significant number of people who will potentially be denied access to justice if the government goes ahead with its planned cuts in housing, employment, family and other areas of civil legal aid. Not surprisingly, the figure has been seized on by campaigners opposed to the cuts, including the Law Society’s Sound Off For Justice campaign, but LAG believes the true figure is much higher. Double-checking the MoJ’s calculations, LAG found that the civil servants drafting the impact assessment had been, let us say, creative in their interpretation of the data. Comparing the figures in the impact assessment with the Legal Services Commission (LSC) figures in 2008/09 for legal advice cases, a total of 615,880 is arrived at for the number of people who would lose out on legal advice services after the proposed cuts are factored in. The official figures have been underestimated by around 20 per cent. Two factors seem to account for this.

The MoJ appears to have knocked off the statistics for telephone advice, despite the fact that these services will be lost if the cuts to civil legal aid outlined in the consultation paper go ahead. It seems it has also based its projection on the statistics for completed cases as opposed to new cases. By doing this, the number of people who lose out on legal aid is understated by over 40,000. This really is a case of lies, damn lies, and statistics. It gets worse. The MoJ chose to base its impact assessment on statistics which were over a year out of date. If it had used the figures from the LSC for the year ending March 2010, LAG calculates that the true number of people who will lose out on legal aid services is 653,659 (or 617,096 if the completed cases figure is used).

LAG believes the number of cases increased in the year 2009/10 due to the combined impact of the Baby Peter case (though this had no impact on legal help cases), the recession and the last government’s five per cent increase in eligibility levels for legal aid. Using the 2009/10 figures, family cases, for example, show an increase of nearly 23,000 on the previous year. Reflecting the impact of the recession, employment law cases, which are set to be completely removed from legal aid, show a rise of 3,500, an increase of over 12 per cent on the previous year.

What LAG would like to emphasise in publishing this research is that the impact on the number of people seeking help with common legal problems is 30% greater than was previously estimated by the government. We believe this provides a further reason for ministers to think again about imposing the planned cuts. If they do not, over 650,000 people stand to lose out on legal advice.

Read LAG's full report: The real impact of legal aid advice cuts

Image: LAG