Friday, 16 December 2011

Wide Support for Amendments to the Legal Aid Bill

Today is the last day for peers to submit amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill. The LASPO Bill is due for its first day in the committee stage in the House of Lords next Tuesday (20th). There is widespread support amongst peers for changes to the Bill.

Perhaps the most surprising supporter of an amendment is Lord Tebbit, the former conservative cabinet minister and right wing political bruiser, famous for his outspoken pronouncements. In 1981, in a curious echo of contemporary events, commenting on the possible link between unemployment and the riots which had taken place that year he said, “I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking 'til he found it.”

Lord Tebbit is supporting an amendment which would bring back legal aid in medical negligence cases concerning children. This is one of the sections of the Bill, which LAG and other pressure groups want to see changed. Many other provisions in the Bill identified as priorities for changing have been covered by the amendments submitted so far. For example an amendment on clause 8 of the Bill, put down by Lord Pannick, Lord Woolf and Lord Faulks, deals with the issue of giving the government powers to put areas of law back into the scope of the legal aid scheme. LAG believes this is important, as without it none of the proposed cuts could be reversed without new legislation. Previous legal aid acts have allowed for changes in what the system covers without primary legislation.

An amendment by Baroness Scotland of Ashal addresses the important issues of the definition of domestic violence and the criteria for qualifying for legal aid in such cases. Lord Bach and Lord Beecham have also put down a number of useful amendments, including one which provides for the establishment of an independent tribunal to review decisions on entitlement to legal aid. LAG believes that both in appearance and practice, decisions on whether cases should be paid for by legal aid must be subject to independent adjudication, otherwise the government will be put in the invidious position of reviewing decisions on whether to grant legal aid for cases against itself.

There is a good spread of support amongst peers from all of the political parties for the amendments. Non-political cross-benchers are particularly prominent in their support of amendments which contradict government policy. Prominent among these are heavyweight legal figures such as Dame Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division, who is supporting a number of amendments, one of which would reinstate entitlement to civil legal aid for people with dependent children.

A letter sent to peers this week from the government minister Lord McNally offered no concessions and reiterated arguments made in the House of Commons stage of the Bill in favour of the cuts to legal aid. In essence Lord McNally, who is in charge of trying to steer the Bill through the Lords for the government, was saying- times are hard and we have to make these cuts. LAG believes he is unlikely to be able to continue holding this line, given the breath of support for many of the amendments. Perhaps its time for him to get on his bike and look for some compromises? Otherwise, the government risks some heavy defeats on the LASPO Bill in the Lords.

Pic: Christmas card sent to members of the House of Lords from the Justice for All campaign

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The value of justice

District Judge Nicholas Crichton takes exception to the recently announced £41m increase in the cost of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics. It is difficult not to agree with him, however much you might be looking forward to next year’s festivities, especially when vital services such as the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), which he leads, have a financial question mark hanging over their future.

Last night DJ Crichton, along with consultant child psychiatrist at FDAC, Dr Mike Shaw, and FDAC's service manager, Sophie Kershaw, gave LAG’s annual lecture. DJ Crichton sees FDAC as a 'problem-solving court' which gets results because of the strength of its interdisciplinary team. He does not tolerate delays and pointed out that the court is geared towards resolving issues over the custody of children quickly. Dr Mike Shaw stressed the importance of doing this as 'relatively short periods of time represent a big portion of a child’s life' and the need to establish attachment bonds between parents and children early in life.

Inspired by a trip to the US, where there are between 15-20 similar courts which try to tackle the problem of drug and alcohol addicted parents, DJ Crichton persuaded the government to establish the FDAC in January 2008. Parents are offered intensive treatment and support to assess if they can have continuing contact with, or custody of, their children. It is not a soft option. They are expected to attend court every two weeks to report on progress and are subject to regular drugs tests.

DJ Crichton spoke of the pride of some parents when they appear before him to report their success in staying off drugs. Some are not successful. At the lecture, he told the heartrending story of a mother who had received two months of treatment from FDAC, but realised that her rehabilitation would take two years. This was too long for the FDAC process, which expects to resolve issues over the care of children after nine months, and the mother agreed to give up her baby for adoption.

Research has shown that the FDAC approach works (see below) - it manages to reunite more mothers with their children; more parents get treatment to deal with their addictions; and more parents stay together after the court’s final order. 'Parents who have learnt on the way [through the FDAC support] are less likely to contest a care plan' and this also saves costs says Sophie Kershaw. She argued that the cost of a case at around £12,000-13,000 is not expensive, but all of this amount will have to be met by local authorities if the government does not renew its grants to FDAC. She fears that cashed strapped local councils might not be prepared to do this.*

Despite the success of FDAC (the service has won four major awards - see below), no renewal of grants has been agreed by the government when the current funding ends in March 2012. This prompted DJ Crichton’s remark to LAG about the increase in the cost of the Olympic ceremonies which he thinks cannot be justified given the austere times the country is facing.

LAG believes the doubt over FDAC’s continued existence is a symptom of the government’s obsession with budget cuts without regard to their wider impact. Helping parents resolve addiction problems while protecting children saves other costs to the government. Above all the work of FDAC should be valued as providing a beacon of hope for tackling social problems that no-one in the family justice system believes the law and the current courts system can adequately deal with.

*This is a change from the original blog as Sophie Kershaw contacted LAG to clarify her comment about local council support.

Visit: to read the evaluation report on the work of FDAC and find out about the awards the FDAC team has received.

An abridged version of the speech will appear in the February 2012 edition of Legal Action journal.

Picture: Robert Aberman

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Legal aid cuts delayed

Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke today put back the implementation of the legal aid cuts from October 2012 to April 2013. LAG welcomes this news. It at least delays the end of legal advice for thousands of people with common civil law problems by six months. However, we believe the pressure needs to be kept on the government to amend the Legal Aid Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, so that the planned cuts to employment, benefits, debt, housing, immigration and other civil legal aid cases do not go ahead.

The six month delay will also apply to the abolition of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the introduction of the mandatory telephone gateway and the revised eligibility criteria for civil legal aid. LAG believes that the deadline to implement the government’s planned changes to legal aid was always going to be hard to meet on a practical level- notice to providers of legal aid services would have had to been given immediately after the Bill had received Royal assent. Most experts including LAG had said that the time-table was too tight to implement the changes by October next year. Rumours had been circulating in recent months that the LSC was telling the Ministry of Justice this. It would seem that the government eventually decided to listen to this advice.

In another humiliating move for the government, they have also announced that they are putting plans on ice to implement competitive tendering for criminal legal aid. In November last year ministers had announced their intention to produce a consultation paper on competitive tendering for criminal work. This has now been put back to the autumn of next year. The first contracts are scheduled to begin in the summer 2015. We have a feeling of deja vu about this decision. The previous government announced plans to introduce competitive tendering for criminal legal aid only to abandon them as the last general election approached.

In LAG’s opinion this is very much a case of pain delayed for civil legal aid clients, as well as for the firms and not for profit agencies which serve them. While it is to be welcomed that the government has paused on the brink of destroying access to justice for 650,000 people; the challenge remains to make them turn back.

Pic: Ministry of Justice