Friday, 24 August 2012

LAG has a new blog

LAG has redesigned its news blog, offering up to date comment and analysis on legal aid and access to justice issues. All posts from this date forward can be found at:

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Reductions in legal aid cases

Figures released today by the Legal Services Commission show reductions in the number of cases funded by legal aid in the past year. A total of £35.3m less was spent in non-family civil cases and £30m less in criminal cases, but a big rise in child protection cases has soaked up these reductions.

In non-family civil legal aid the main contributor to the reduction in spending has been just under £20m less being spent on asylum and immigration cases. LAG is surprised that around £12m less was spent on asylum cases in the year ending 31 March 2012 as figures from the Home Office show an 11 per cent increase in asylum applications in 2011. We believe that the reduction in expenditure on such cases has been caused by clients being unable to find a lawyer willing to take on their cases.

In the last two years, two of the largest suppliers of advice in immigration and asylum cases, the charities Refugee and Migrant Justice and the Immigration Advisory Service, have folded because of financial problems. Between them these charities undertook around 35,000 cases a year, which is at least a third of the annual total of immigration and asylum cases. LAG believes that the demise of these charities is a large part of the reason for the reduction in cases and fears that clients in need of advice on immigration matters are not getting the help they need.

There are also reductions in spending on housing, welfare benefits, debt and other civil cases. Although not on the same scale as the reduction in spending on immigration advice, these reductions in advice spending, which concern areas of law in which people commonly experience problems in a recession, are again surprising. The numbers of contracts in these non-family areas of law is down by around 200 to 2,640, and so it might be that the public are experiencing greater difficulties in accessing advice.

Police station and magistrates' court cases are down by £30m in expenditure, representing around 100,000 cases. Due to the wider use of cautions, the numbers of such cases have been falling in recent years, but anecdotal evidence from both defence lawyers and the police suggests that the police are increasingly not charging suspects due to budget cuts.

Expenditure on child protection cases has risen again, this year by £65m. The continuing impact of the baby Peter case is a likely factor, but costs per case also rose by approximately £500 to £5,495. This suggests that lawyers are taking more time on these cases. Other costs, such as expert reports, have also increased. These figures indicate that the government needs to do more work on understanding the costs of protecting children, as this remains a priority for the legal aid system. LAG believes that the reduction in expenditure for the rest of the civil legal aid system demonstrates that there is a direct relationship between availability of advice and access to justice.

See the LSC statistics and the Home Office asylum statistics.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mediation Works

A growing trend is for lawyers to train as mediators. Mediation is seen as a useful additional service to provide for clients. Usually, it is offered in tandem with a lawyers’ existing specialism such as family or commercial law. Most importantly, mediation is increasingly recognised as a means of solving disputes, as it is cheaper than litigation and avoids fracturing, sometimes irretrievably, the relationship between the parties. LAG believes that mediation can be a powerful method of alternative dispute resolution, but there is a need for a wider understanding about the mediation process, its advantages and limitations.

Mediators are non-judgemental neutral third parties who seek to bring about solutions through facilitating discussions between the parties in a dispute to reach an agreement by consensus. For this to work the process must be entered into on a voluntary basis, with the parties controlling the mediation process and being free to walk away from it at any time. Mediation has to take place on a private and confidential basis, with the parties deciding if they wish to disclose any eventual settlement to a court. Discussions around the options for a settlement have to be carried out on a without prejudice basis in order to prevent parties being forced to accept solutions they have not agreed to.

There is no national accreditation and regulatory scheme which covers mediation services, apart from in family mediation. There is a need for a standard professional qualification for mediators which would require an accepted level of competence for a person to practice as a mediator, whether they are working in family, workplace, community or, civil law dispute mediation. As with other professions this regulation should be undertaken by an independent professional body for mediators.

A fundamental principle, which should be common across all mediation, is that in cases involving legal rights parties need to have access to legal advice. Without this, an estranged wife or husband in a divorce case for example can believe, rightly or wrongly, that if they had been able to go to court they would have obtained a better result. This can risk injustice through people agreeing to solutions which are inferior to what the law allows for or, the mediation process unravelling with no agreement.

A requirement to consider mediation in small claims before the country court is due to be introduced and in family law it is already compulsory to consider mediation before taking a case to court. The government is right to try and persuade parties in dispute to look at mediation, but they are also, withdrawing legal aid for most family cases from April next year, as part of a their cuts to the civil justice system. This is likely to lead to many unrepresented parties clogging up the court system as in many family disputes access to legal advice is a prerequisite to resolve problems and without it mediation alone cannot provide a solution.

The mediation process can help former partners in a relationship reach solutions that deal with the practicalities of a break-up, such as contact and residence arrangements for children and settling financial support. Perhaps, mediation’s greatest strength in family cases is that it can contribute to re-establishing a relationship between estranged couples on the basis of mutually agreed solutions to disputes. Ultimately, it is not the mediator’s role to decide on the fairness of the outcome. Their duty is to ensure the mediation process has been fair and equitable and it is up to the parties to reach mutually agreed solutions.

LAG has just published, Making mediation work for you- a practical handbook by Kate Aubrey-Johnston.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Award for Legal Action

Legal Action has won journal of the year from the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL).

At the association’s annual dinner last Friday (15 June), LAG’s Director, Steve Hynes, received the award on behalf of the journal’s editor, Val Williams, and assistant editor, Louise Povey. It is the second time Legal Action has won the award. The Legal Action journal started forty years ago as a photocopied bulletin of the Legal Action Group, it was renamed Legal Action in 1984.

Susan Scorey, the president of BIALL, said that the judging panel had been ‘unanimous in its praise of the journal’ saying it is a ‘genuine journal’ which covers areas of law otherwise little addressed, it is ‘well presented and logically organised’ and that the material was current with ‘good referencing’. One of the nominations received for the award described Legal Action as ‘an excellent title for keeping up to date on certain areas of law’ as well as being good value for money.

Val Williams, commenting on the award, said that she and Louise Povey would like to thank the members of BIALL, ‘This prestigious award is an important recognition that Legal Action is highly thought of by a respected group of legal information professionals. We would like to thank and acknowledge the other members of our Legal Action team, that is, our contributors and production staff, without whom, we would not be able to produce our monthly “baby”.’

The BIALL annual dinner took place at the association’s conference which was held this year in Belfast. The event was attended by around 300 delegates who work in law libraries in universities, law firms and barristers chambers. The conference exhibition included stands from most of the major legal publishers, book suppliers and distributors.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Inspirational Legal Aid Awards Evening

Last night the legal aid world gathered to celebrate at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards, better known as the LALYs. This is the tenth year of the LALYs and once again the awards proved to be an inspirational celebration of the work of legal aid practitioners despite the gloom caused by the pending cuts.

Awards were made for young solicitor, young barrister and legal aid barrister, as well as for lawyers in individual categories of law – family, social welfare, mental health, immigration and criminal law. The LALYs are organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) which represents the interests of legal aid lawyers. The evening was full of touching stories about the dedication of the lawyers who work in legal aid. For example, a colleague of Eileen Bye, nominated for immigration lawyer of the year, had told the LALY judging panel of how she would ‘filch clothes from her son’s wardrobe for clients’. A client of Bushra Ali, also nominated for the immigration lawyer prize, described her as ‘like a heart surgeon who has given me a new heart and a new lease of life’.

Winners included Rachel Horman, of Watson Ramsbottom solicitors based in Blackburn. She specialises in domestic violence cases and commented on accepting the award for family legal aid lawyer that women ‘are attacked over 37 times on average before they go to anyone for help’. Another winner was Turpin & Miller. The Oxford-based solicitors won firm of the year and in accepting the award stressed that fee earners in the firm work together to resolve the clusters of problems clients face.

The cuts in scope to legal aid planned by the government for April next year were never far from people’s minds last night. Raj Chada, who won the criminal defence lawyer LALY commented, ‘Our clients are willing to stand-up and say legal aid is an essential public service and should be funded’. Michael Mansfield QC, who chaired the panel of judges which made the awards, in a rousing speech called for ‘an uprising against what has happened to legal aid’ and said that the ‘political and legal fight against the legal aid cuts must continue’.

The award for outstanding achievement was made to the solicitor Imran Khan, who was described as a lawyer who once he has run out of all the legal options demands that the law is changed so that justice is served. It was fitting that his most high profile client, Doreen Lawrence, received a special 10th anniversary award. The co-chair of LAPG, Jenny Beck, who presented this award said that Doreen Lawrence, who campaigned for 19 years to bring her son’s killers to justice, was someone ‘who fought for justice not because it was her job, but due to tragic circumstance’ and that she was ‘an inspiration to everyone who cares about justice’.

The July edition of Legal Action will have full coverage of awards. Legal Action Group is the media partner of the awards.

PIC Robert Aberman

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Legal Aid Act - the fight goes on

What is covered by legal aid has not been set in stone by the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 ('the Legal Aid Act'). LAG expects that both secondary legislation and test cases will influence the scope of the legal aid system and the regulations which govern it.

The rules on qualifying for help in domestic violence cases proved extremely controversial during the passage of the bill. Parliamentarians in all parties were concerned that victims would be left unprotected. At the third reading of the bill in the House of Lords, an amendment on the circumstances in which a victim of domestic violence could qualify for legal aid was narrowly defeated. Peers voted 238 votes both for and against the amendment, meaning the government won the day under parliamentary convention. Before this the government had made significant concessions allowing doctors' reports and admission to a refuge to be included in the criteria for qualifying for legal aid. Emma Scott of Rights of Women argues that while this was an important step:

'It does not go far enough to reflect the many different routes that domestic violence victims choose to escape abuse. The regulations, which will provide the framework for eligibility for family law legal aid will still exclude potentially thousands of victims of domestic violence.'

Emma Scott says out of 124,895 women accessing Women’s Aid England member services in 2010, only 17,615 were successful in finding refuge places. The most common reason for not being admitted was lack of beds. She believes over 107,000 women accessing domestic violence outreach services would potentially be ineligible for family law legal aid to resolve important children and financial disputes following the breakdown of their relationship. LAG understands that the regulations on the criteria for qualifying for legal aid in domestic violence cases will be brought before parliament in secondary legislation in the autumn.

'It is vital that we use this opportunity to continue lobbying and campaigning to persuade the government to include evidence of accessing specialist domestic violence services in the regulations. Without it, thousands of women and children will become unable to access justice and remain at risk of violence and abuse,' says Emma Scott.

Discussions are ongoing among campaign groups concerned with access to justice over likely test cases to challenge the legislation. Two years ago the government and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) lost a judicial review case brought by The Law Society and firms concerned about the fairness of the LSC’s procurement procedures, which if they had stood would have meant nearly half the 2,400 firms with family contracts losing them. Much more is at stake with the changes introduced by the Legal Aid Act as large parts of civil legal aid, including family law, will go. LAG sees test cases as a vital part of an ongoing campaign to try and repair the damage the Legal Aid Act will reap on access to justice for the public.

See June’s Legal Action magazine for an article on the next steps in the campaign against the Legal Aid Act.

Photograph: Justice for All

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Worries over advice sector fund

Speaking at a meeting in parliament organised by the campaign group Justice for All on 1 May, civil society minister Nick Hurd was evasive on how and when the £40m allocated for advice services in the budget would be spent. He was speaking on the same day that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill received royal assent, and admitted that the cash was earmarked to help advice charities deal 'with the legal aid cliff'.

In comments about the £16.8m Advice Services Fund which has already been distributed to 301 advice charities in England, Nick Hurd said: 'At the time of very little money being around we did find at the centre some money to plug the gap left by local government.' He told the meeting, which was well attended by parliamentarians and representatives from the advice sector, that the government’s advice review would be published later in the year: 'There will be a compelling story to tell on how we can configure services to meet demand.' He also acknowledged that 'government needs to be a lot smarter in reducing demand in the system', and argued that the £40m pot for the UK, which will be spent over the next two financial years, should be used 'to incentivise local support and funding' for advice services and to 'help deliver a better integrated system', but not to support 'business as usual' for the sector. The minister would not give details on the criteria or timescale for applications to the fund saying only that the government 'needs a bit of time to plan to get it right'.

The meeting heard from Mike Dixon, the assistant chief executive of Citizens Advice, who was critical of the way in which the first tranche of money from the advice fund had been distributed. He argued that the funding should be allocated to national organisations such as Citizens Advice to identify services at a local level and that it had been difficult for the Big Lottery Fund (BLF), which was responsible for administering the first round of grants, 'to make good decisions' because of its lack of knowledge about local advice agencies. 'The advice networks know where the problems are', he said. He also pledged that if Citizens Advice was to distribute the cash it would not charge to do so, unlike the BLF.

The event was chaired by the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd, and parliamentarians in the audience included Conservative MP Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Andy Slaughter. Andy Slaughter, the shadow justice minister, stressed the importance of monitoring the impact of the cuts which will be implemented next year and praised Justice for All for 'shifting the public mood on legal aid from how much lawyers get paid to the impact on clients'.

Ruth Hayes, director of Islington Law Centre, told the meeting that her service could not cope with the demand for advice; 200 clients are seen face to face and around 1,000 get help over the phone each week. She said the Law Centre’s clients often faced a 'number of complex problems which require in-depth work' and that it is important that the resources are in place 'to support clients throughout their cases'.

It should not be forgotten that the Advice Services Fund will make up less than a quarter of the cash which the charitable advice sector is losing from legal aid. LAG believes the government is correct to take some time to ensure the right decisions are taken on the strategic use of the cash available, but if local advice centres are going to have any chance of planning for a future without legal aid funding, announcements on the criteria for funding and the application process will have to be made sooner rather than later.

Image: LAG - minister Nick Hurd speaking with Mike Dixon from Citizens Advice.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Vote on domestic violence amendment lost

Losing votes is not like losing football matches. Both can turn on luck or chance, but no matter how passionate a team and its supporters are, losing a match is ultimately part of the game, whereas much more can hinge on losing a vote.

Last night Lady Scotland, the former Attorney-General, mounted an impassioned plea in the House of Lords for the government to extend the grounds on which victims of domestic violence can claim legal aid. The vote on her amendment was a draw (238 to 238) which means in accordance with parliamentary procedure that it was lost. If her amendment had succeeded, the government would have been forced to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill).

The government has made significant concessions on domestic violence in the debate on the Legal Aid Bill. It moved the time limit on evidence of domestic violence from one to two years but, as Lady Scotland says, imposing a time limit shows a complete misunderstanding of domestic violence and how victims, usually women, will suffer for some years before finally deciding to take action. The government made concessions on the criteria that will be accepted to claim legal aid in a domestic violence case, including entering a refuge, but as Lady Scotland argued:

It is important that we look at the places where applicants go: it is not just to refuges. For example, we know that many councils outsource their provision of outreach services to [Citizens Advice Bureaux] or local third sector organisations, knowing that they can be more effective at satisfying needs than state social services. Those agencies need to be included.

She also argued that the gateway criteria for legal aid do not include information from police over attendances at the matrimonial home. Those with knowledge and experience of dealing with domestic violence all argue that while police may be called many times it is often the case that the victim will not press charges. At the moment the gateway does not include information from the police that there have been a number of attendances at a matrimonial home. On this Lady Scotland said:

The noble Lord will know that many victims do not press the matter on to charge or to conviction. The police may have been called many times, but if there is not a charge or a caution, the applicant-victim will not be able to rely on that for legal aid.

In response to Lady Scotland’s argument the minister Lord McNally listed the initiatives and cash the government is devoting to services to tackle domestic violence: 'One thing that I am most proud of about this government is that we have put funding into domestic violence issues in a very detailed way,' he said. LAG would argue that the small changes to the proposed legislation which Lady Scotland argued for would have ensured thousands of people could seek legal protection instead of being left without help.

The government confirmed last night its previously announced concession on mesothelioma cases, an industrial disease caused by exposure to asbestos. This is the last now of a number of concessions on the Legal Aid Bill which the government has been forced to make. The bill is expected to become law next week.

Votes in the Lords can come down to a combination of luck and circumstances. When Lady Scotland’s motion was debated on Monday this week it won by 239 to 236. More peers opposed to the government's plans could have attended last night, but equally more government peers could have been present, prepared only to follow their whips and not listen to the arguments. What is surprising with the vote last night and throughout the debates in the Lords, is the large number of Liberal Democrat peers who cravenly toed the government line against, LAG suspects, their consciences.

We cannot help but reflect that such crucial votes as last night's should boil down to more than a combination of unthinking party discipline and who decides to turn up, as there is so much more at stake than which side wins.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Last-ditch concessions on Legal Aid Bill

Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced further concessions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, last night in the House of Commons, but if the bill becomes law next week many thousands of people will still lose out on access to civil justice.

Campaign organisations including LAG, Rights of Women (ROW) and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes had argued that the government should adopt the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) definition of domestic violence. The ACPO definition covers, 'any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults ... who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender and sexuality'. Clarke confirmed last night in the Commons debate on the Lords amendments to the Legal Aid Bill that the government would be incorporating this definition into the bill.

Of greater significance was the government’s agreement to widen the criteria for victims of domestic violence to qualify for legal aid. Clarke confirmed in the debate:

' … we intend to accept as evidence — we will reflect this in regulations — the following matters: an undertaking given to a court by the other party in lieu of a protective order or injunction against that party for the protection of the applicant, where there is no equivalent undertaking given by the applicant; a police caution for a domestic violence offence by the other party against the applicant; appropriate evidence of admission to a domestic violence refuge; appropriate evidence from a social services department confirming provision of services to the victim in relation to alleged domestic violence; and appropriate evidence from GPs or other medical professionals'.

LAG welcomes what we believe is a significant concession from the government which will ensure justice for many victims of domestic violence. We would, though, highlight the concern raised by ROW that the regulations need to include those who have accessed specialist domestic violence services. Many women are turned away from refuges due to lack of space. A ROW survey undertaken on 16 June 2011 showed that 224 women were refused refuge places: 163 because there were no beds available; 13 because they had no recourse to public funds and 48 for another reason such as complex needs. Many more women who are victims of domestic violence receive help from other services than are admitted to refuges. They need legal assistance as well and the regulations need to reflect this.

Clarke also announced a small concession on welfare benefits advice in response to the amendment which had been tabled by the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. Clarke said that he would bring forward regulations to allow legal aid in cases in which a point of law was being argued before a welfare benefits tribunal, but this will only be relevant in very few cases. LAG believes most of the estimated 135,000 people who currently receive advice on benefits through legal aid will still lose out if the bill is passed.

The Legal Aid Bill will return to the Lords next week. LAG is urging peers to seek assurances on what criteria will be included in the regulations on domestic violence. Also, the Lords made eleven amendments to the bill, which included amendments on issues such as the compulsory telephone gateway. These have been glibly ignored by the Justice Secretary. The government is up against a deadline to get the bill through by the end of this parliamentary session. Peers need to push for more concessions.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Clarke plays hardball with Lords

Despite huge opposition to parts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) from crossbench and opposition peers, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has decided to reject most of the 11 amendments made in the Lords stages of the bill.* Two partial concessions have been made by the government on independence in decision-making on entitlement to legal aid in individual cases and the availability of legal aid in appeals on welfare benefits to the Upper Tribunal and other courts.

It is believed that peers are likely to oppose the government strongly over its rejection of moves to set out the evidential criteria required for victims of domestic violence to qualify to claim legal aid. This includes a proposal by the government to time-limit admissible evidence of domestic violence to 12 months. In the debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Scotland argued that evidence such as disclosure of domestic abuse by a victim to a doctor or statutory agency should be sufficient to claim legal aid.

In the LAG-commissioned report from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on legal aid and domestic violence, a woman who took part in the research said:

'I’ve never reported any incidence of violence with my ex-partner, the only time that I started reporting it is when I got pregnant. And social services were involved so I reported it to them. I never saw the police as an option because I didn’t think they could help abused women.'**

According to research from the campaign group Rights of Women, at least 46 per cent of domestic violence victims who currently qualify for legal aid will be ineligible under the government’s proposed evidence gateways.***

LAG welcomes the government’s decision to allow legal aid in welfare benefits cases before the Upper Tribunal and other higher courts. We believe the government was forced to make this concession due to pressure from Liberal Democrat backbench MPs concerned about the impact of the Welfare Reform Act (WRA). However, we do not believe it is enough, as there are only a few hundred such cases each year but there are likely to be thousands of appeals to the First-tier Tribunal, particularly with the introduction of changes under the WRA. An already creaking tribunal system is likely to be swamped under a deluge of claims with benefit claimants unable to get initial advice on their cases.

The issue of independence in decision-making is something LAG has pursued from the outset of the government's planned reforms of the legal aid system. We believe the amendment proposed by the Justice Secretary, guaranteeing the independence of the Director of Legal Aid Casework, is the very minimum required to prevent political interference in decisions on entitlement to legal aid. We would have preferred an independent tribunal system and believe this may still happen if ministers do not resist the temptation to meddle in individual cases.

The Legal Aid Bill goes into the ping-pong stage between the Lords and the Commons tomorrow. Kenneth Clarke may find that peers have taken umbrage at his high-handed rejection of much of their revised bill.

*See: Consideration of Lords amendments.

** Legal aid is a lifeline: women speak out on the legal aid reforms, October 2011, available on: LAG's website.

*** Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid, Evidencing domestic violence: the facts, January 2012, available on: the Rights of Women website

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Legal Aid Bill back in the Commons

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, returns to the House of Commons next Tuesday (17 April). A total of eleven amendments were made to the bill in the Lords, nine of these to the section dealing with legal aid.

When the Legal Aid Bill was completing its passage through the Commons last year, ten Liberal Democrat MPs rebelled against the government, supporting an amendment on legal aid for complex benefits cases tabled by the Labour MP, Yvonne Fovargue. While the vote on this amendment was lost in the Commons, a similar amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Doocey, was successful in the Lords. LAG has written to government MPs to urge them to support the bill as amended by this and the other changes introduced in the Lords.

We view the following issues reflecting amendments made by peers as essential:

1) The Welfare Reform Act will have a significant impact on claimants, particularly disabled people, and LAG believes it is fair that people should be able to access specialist advice on benefits in order to challenge government decisions, particularly at a time of such far-reaching changes.
2) Cases involving children should continue to be covered by the legal aid system.
3) Plans to filter cases through a telephone gateway should be dropped, as the people who qualify for legal aid are the least likely to use such services.
4) The criteria for qualifying for legal aid should ensure the protection of victims of domestic violence.
5) Decisions on entitlement to legal aid in individual cases should be made independently from ministers.

While not going as far as outright rebellion when the bill was last in the Commons, some Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, such as Helen Grant, the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald, were critical of the government’s proposals. Grant expressed disquiet over the availability of legal aid in domestic violence cases, arguing that the definition of domestic violence was inadequate and that the qualifying criteria to be granted legal aid were too restrictive. If the government were to ignore the Lords' amendments on issues such as this, it might risk a rebellion among previously loyal backbenchers.

Another danger for the government is a protracted ping-pong stage between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as peers might choose to dig their heels in if the government rejects their amended bill. The Legal Aid Bill is the last significant piece of legislation in this session of parliament and the government will want it to become law before the Queen's Speech, which is expected early next month.

LAG is urging campaigners to write to their MPs. Please follow this link from the Justice for All website to write to your MP.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Further defeats on Legal Aid Bill for government

Last night the government suffered two further defeats on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) at report stage in the House of Lords. Peers have now voted in favour of eleven amendments to the bill, more than any other bill in this parliament.

Peers voted by 232 to 220 last night to keep legal aid funding for children in civil legal cases. They also voted by 228 to 215 to retain legal aid in clinical negligence cases. Speaking to her amendment on legal aid for children in civil cases, Lady Grey-Thompson, the paralympian and disabled rights campaigner, said: 'Children are not adults. They do not have the capacity to represent themselves or to interpret the thousands of pages of laws and regulations that affect them.'

Nine of the eleven defeats have been over the provisions in the bill on legal aid. It returns to the House of Commons next month to enter what is known as the 'ping pong' stage, in which the amended bill goes between the Lords and the Commons until agreement is reached. Key areas of the bill which have been amended include provisions relating to qualifying for legal aid in domestic violence cases, as well as retaining legal aid for welfare benefits and cases involving children. LAG also argues that the decision-making process on entitlement to legal aid in individual cases should be independent of government. An amendment which ensures this was supported by peers and the government has indicated that it would consider introducing an independent review procedure for cases.

LAG and Justice for All are urging supporters to contact their MPs, especially Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to ask the government to support the Legal Aid Bill as amended by the Lords.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Report critical of MoJ’s financial management

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the House of Commons has published a report this week which is critical of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and its failure to deliver accounts on time. Margaret Hodge MP, chairperson of the PAC, said that while the MoJ’s financial management had improved, it 'remains unable to deliver timely and accurate financial accounts'. The PAC, which scrutinises the spending of government departments to ensure value for money, pointed to 'significant problems' with the accounts produced by the Legal Services Commission and the figures from the Courts Service. In the report, published on Tuesday (20 March), the committee raises concerns about the MoJ’s ability to meet its cuts targets, 'given the demand-led nature of its business'.

'Without full information on its costs, there is a risk that savings will be made through unnecessary cuts to frontline services essential to the poorest in the community, rather than through genuine improvements in the Ministry’s efficiency,' said Margaret Hodge.

The report is also scathing about the MoJ’s ability to maximise income to the department. It points to an improvement in fine collection, but observes that this is being 'outpaced by the growth in fines outstanding' and that there has been no progress in increasing fee recovery levels in the Courts Service. The MoJ also admits that 60 per cent of the cash in confiscation orders in criminal cases might never be recovered.

Problems with financial management at the MoJ are not a new story. For years the MoJ and its predecessor departments have struggled to control the demand-led budgets of the courts system and legal aid. Under the last government the prisons budget was added to this mix. At the heart of the financial management difficulties is a lack of political will to do anything which would require thinking beyond short-term budget cycles. The cuts to legal aid illustrate this. Cutbacks in family legal aid especially are likely to have a knock-on impact to the courts and other budgets, but no-one, least of all officials in the department, has any idea what the financial and other consequences of these will be.

A total of nearly £2bn is owed to the MoJ in unpaid fines and confiscation orders. This is nearly equivalent to the entire legal aid budget. LAG believes that the government should be pursuing a long-term strategy to maximise the collection of this income, rather than rushing for short-term cuts in legal aid, which will disproportionately impact on the poor and most vulnerable.

PAC report: Ministry of Justice financial management

Friday, 16 March 2012

Time to compromise on Legal Aid Bill?

Another week goes by and the government suffers another significant defeat in the debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill. The question is will they accept the Lords' amendments or seek to circumvent them by the use of parliamentary procedure?

On Wednesday (14 March), peers backed an amendment by Baroness Grey-Thompson, a crossbench peer, against the mandatory telephone gateway. In proposing the amendment, she said: 'A telephone-only service may work for a large number of people. However, it may adversely impact the most vulnerable clients, who may struggle to explain complex problems over the phone.' She also expressed concerns that the telephone operators would not be legally trained: 'As a result, operators may not be able effectively to interpret the nuances of complex cases put to them, let alone cases put to them by clients who may be confused or have some difficulty in communicating.'

Baroness Grey-Thompson is a former Paralympic athlete who campaigns on sport, women's issues and disability. Her amendment was supported by Lord Newton, the former Conservative cabinet minister, who made the point that: ' ... it is only face to face that you can disentangle the points on which they might have a case. This is important to a lot of people who cannot really fend for themselves.' Peers supported the amendment by 234 votes to 206, a majority of 28.

LAG believes that telephone advice can play an important part in ensuring legal advice services reach the general public. What we disagree with is offering it as the only method of accessing services, which is what the government is proposing. Our opinion poll research shows that the poorest social groups, those which are most likely to qualify for legal aid, are the least likely to use telephone and internet-based services.

Earlier in the week, two important amendments were lost in votes. On Monday night, amendments to bring immigration law and debt back into scope were defeated. In LAG's view, the loss of the amendment on immigration law is especially bitter as these clients will have nowhere else to turn for advice unless they can find the money to pay, as providing advice on immigration law is tightly regulated. After losing the votes on these amendments, no other amendments against the bill were pushed to a vote that night. These included amendments on bringing housing-related benefits and unfair dismissal back into scope.

Over the last two weeks, the government has suffered seven defeats on the legal aid section of the Legal Aid Bill. The government has also made seven concessions, including allowing areas of law to be added to the legal aid scheme in future, adopting a wider definition of domestic violence and withdrawing the threat of means-testing police station advice. The Lords have now moved on to the two other sections of the bill concerning litigation funding and sentencing.

At the start of the debate on the Legal Aid Bill, it was asked whether the government would make use of the financial privilege procedure to rule out any amendments by the Lords with cost implications. Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the government in the Lords, argued that designating an amendment as being subject to financial privilege is not a decision which the government takes. While this is correct (it is a decision for the Clerks of Parliament), he failed to acknowledge that the government decides whether or not privilege is to be waived so that an amendment to a bill made in the Lords can be considered by the House of Commons.

According to the parliamentary clerks, the waiving of financial privilege by governments is a normal part of procedure: 'The Commons waives its privilege far more often than not': Financial privilege: a note by the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of Legislation. There is also a strong argument that the amendments to the Legal Aid Bill are not covered by financial privilege. According to Jeff King, senior lecturer in law at University College London, financial privilege was wrongly used in the Welfare Reform Bill and should also not apply to the Legal Aid Bill: Welfare reform and the financial privilege.

Procedural wrangling may well antagonise peers who feel that by amending the bill they have properly exercised their duties as the reviewing chamber. The Lords have the option of delaying the bill, which would effectively kill it off, as it has to be passed before the Queen's Speech due in May, unless the government is willing to reintroduce it in the next parliamentary session and use the Parliament Act to force it through. All a bit over the top, considering the government's main policy changes remain intact as the bill now stands. Peers have managed to blunt some of the sharp edges of the bill most damaging to justice without making much of a dent in the savings the Ministry of Justice needs to find. LAG would suggest this is a sensible compromise in the circumstances and the government should be pragmatic and accept it.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Government loses crucial votes in Lords on legal aid

Peers in the House of Lords inflicted a number of significant defeats on the government this week over its proposals for legal aid. They were debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which has reached the report stage in the Lords. Not only did the government lose the votes, but it lost the argument, as the justice minister, Lord McNally, was often the lone voice defending the bill in some very one-sided debates.

The first defeat came on Monday evening. An amendment from the crossbench peer, Lord Pannick, which gives the Justice Secretary the responsibility of ensuring access to justice within the available resources was approved by a majority of 45. An amendment from Labour’s Baroness Scotland, setting out the criteria for victims of domestic violence to qualify for legal aid, was approved by a majority of 37. A third amendment on the independence of decision-making on entitlement to legal aid was also lost by the government.

Late on Monday night Lord McNally confirmed that the government would amend the bill to allow areas of law to be brought back into scope. Lord Thomas had already told Justice for All supporters that the government was going to agree to this (see news blog for 23 February) and so this announcement had rather lost its impact. The concession does give some hope that any cuts in legal aid could be made good in the future, but it did little to placate opposition to the bill from peers as a bad week for the government got worse on Wednesday night.

For much of the debate on Wednesday, Lord McNally was again alone in defending government policy against an onslaught of criticism from peers on all sides of the House. At one point he rather lost his cool, criticising the non-political crossbench peers by implying that they were being irresponsible by voting for amendments which were against government policy. By the sedate standards of the House of Lords this is about as abusive as it gets and moved Lord Cormack, a Conservative peer, to accuse Lord McNally of 'histrionics'.

The amendment proposed by Liberal Democrat Lady Doocey, with support from Labour, Conservative and crossbench peers, was the most significant defeat for the government of the night. The amendment puts advice on welfare benefits back into scope and was passed with a majority of 39. A second amendment from Lord Newton, a Conservative and former Social Security Secretary, was also passed. Lord Newton’s amendment restores legal aid for appeals. An amendment from Lord Thomas, on complex appeals cases was withdrawn after an assurance that the government would consider this further. The government also lost by a small majority an amendment which would allow medical reports to be paid for by legal aid in medical negligence cases.

Lord McNally argued that the amendments which the Lords voted for would drive 'a coach and horses' through the bill as its main aim is to cut legal aid as a contribution to the government’s deficit reduction programme. He also hinted that the amendments would not be accepted by the House of Commons as they would jeopardise the Ministry of Justice’s budget plans.

LAG believes Lord McNally is guilty of exaggeration. In the context of the £350m saving the government is seeking from the legal aid budget, the amendments passed yesterday would cost less than five per cent of this. LAG argues the government should look at other ways of saving the cash, such as Lord Carlile’s suggestion to use the assets of people accused of a crime to fund defence costs.

The government has two problems it needs to face in the light of these and further amendments likely to be approved next week. First, it is up against a deadline as the parliamentary session is due to end in early May. Also, particularly on the domestic violence and welfare benefits provisions in the bill, there is disquiet among its own backbenchers both in the Lords and the Commons. Ten Liberal Democrat MPs voted for a Labour amendment on welfare benefits in the Commons and more would have rebelled if the government had not successfully talked out a Liberal Democrat amendment. These factors might well force the government’s hand to make further concessions on the bill to ensure it is approved.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Government ignoring public opinion on civil legal aid

A report published today (5 March) by Legal Action Group (LAG) finds that public opinion strongly supports the provision of legal services paid for by the state.

LAG’s report, Social welfare law: what the public wants from civil legal aid, details the findings of an opinion poll of 1,000 members of the public which was conducted for LAG by GfK NOP, the market research company, in January this year.

The report’s findings include:

- 82% of respondents believed that free advice on common civil legal problems should be available to everyone, or at least to those with income on or below the national average wage.

- Support for legal services paid for by the state was consistent across social classes.

- People in social class DE were the least likely to be willing to use the internet or telephone to obtain advice.

- There was rising support across all social classes for employment law advice to be paid for by the state, which we conclude is caused by people’s anxiety over their employment rights due to the economic slowdown.

LAG believes the message to the government from the results of this opinion poll is very clear. People believe it is fair for the state to pay for advice on the everyday legal problems which life can throw at them and by proposing to cut much of civil legal aid, the government is in danger of completely ignoring the views of the public.

In October 2010, GfK NOP carried out the same poll for LAG. The results in the current poll practically mirror those of the first poll. This indicates that despite the government’s arguments around the need to reduce the deficit, support from the public for legal advice services paid for by the state has remained consistent.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, reaches the report stage in the House of Lords today. If it is not amended, people will lose access to advice on most civil legal problems to do with housing, employment, benefits and debt, and other areas of civil law, often referred to as social welfare law. We are calling on parliament to persuade the government to reverse its decision to withdraw civil legal aid for advice on the sorts of problems which many people are now facing due to the economic slowdown.

Copies of the report are being sent to parliamentarians and policy-makers. It makes the following recommendations:

- The proposed cuts to legal aid for housing, employment and benefits cases should be reversed (at a cost of £40m).

- Custody cases and other legal issues that directly impact on children should continue to be covered by the legal aid system, reflecting the public’s main priority of protecting children.

- Provision should be made in the bill to allow for the extension of legal aid to other areas of law. This would be in keeping with previous legislation and would give future governments the flexibility to respond to demand for services caused by developments in the law, shifts in demand and public opinion, as well as other factors.

- The government should adopt a 'polluter pays' policy, which should include other arms of the state paying for the knock-on costs to the legal aid system.

- Plans to filter cases through a telephone gateway should be dropped, as the people who qualify for legal aid are the least likely to use such services.

After the report stage, the Legal Aid Bill will move on to its third reading in the Lords. Unlike in the House of Commons, amendments to a bill at this stage are often taken in the Lords before it is sent to the Commons for final approval. LAG, Justice for All and the other campaign organisations opposed to the bill have pledged to continue fighting to persuade the government to amend it until the last possible opportunity. This opinion poll shows that the public instinctively believes that civil legal aid is essential to ensure access to justice. It's time for the government to show that it understands this as well.

Steve Hynes,
Director of LAG

Friday, 2 March 2012

Legal Aid Bill concessions

On Wednesday, the government announced two further concessions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill. The bill reaches the crucial report stage in the House of Lords on Monday (5 March) and LAG believes the government’s move is calculated to try and quell opposition.

Legal aid will now be granted in cases of babies damaged at birth, but LAG points out that this will still leave thousands of other victims of medical accidents without access to justice. The government’s concession is unlikely to head off peers voting for amendments which will widen the number of people qualifying to claim legal aid in medical negligence cases. Former Conservative cabinet minister, Lord Newton, for example, is supporting an amendment which would mean that all children are eligible for legal aid in medical negligence cases (amendment 31).

The government has also signalled that it will adopt the Association of Chief Police Officer’s definition of domestic violence, which LAG has been pressing for (see Legal Aid Bill domestic violence concession?). In October last year a report from the Women’s Institute, which had been commissioned by LAG, argued for this amendment. Reacting to the news, the chairperson of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes told LAG,

'Whilst this amendment is welcomed, the government is still refusing to see sense over the real needs of domestic violence victims. The fact that the government has finally decided to adhere to its own already-widely accepted definition that domestic violence encompasses physical, psychological, emotional and financial abuse is a relief, but continuing to ask victims of domestic abuse to jump through varying hoops in an attempt to secure desperately needed legal aid is hugely disappointing.'

LAG and other campaign organisations, including the Women’s Institute, are pressing the government to widen the criteria to qualify for legal aid in domestic violence cases. We are urging peers to support an amendment to the bill (amendment 43) which has been proposed by Baroness Scotland, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Blair and the Lord Bishop of Leicester. This is likely to be debated on Monday in the Lords.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Advice Fund only covers half of charities in need

LAG has learnt that applications to the Advice Services Fund, which was established by the Cabinet Office to offset the impact of the cuts on advice centres in the current year, have outweighed the cash available by more than double.

A total of £16.8m was allocated for England but, according to letters sent to unsuccessful bidders which have been seen by LAG, 622 applications were received worth £35m. In a letter to those rejected, the Big Fund - which is administering the cash on behalf of the government - made it clear that charities which needed money would have to do without: 'Given the competitive nature of this programme and with a budget of £16.8million, we were unable to offer grants to all of the worthwhile applications we have received.'

The balance of the £20m fund was divided between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Applicants had to demonstrate they would receive a cut of ten per cent or more in the current financial year and applied for grants worth between £40,000-70,000. Advice agencies which had been awarded money from the Transition Fund last year were told they would not get priority for Advice Services Fund cash.

Many not for profit (NFP) advice services are being hit with cuts from local government and other funders. Any help is welcome, but the Advice Services Fund is clearly inadequate, as over £80m is due to be cut from legal aid for housing, employment, debt, benefits and other areas of civil law, usually referred to as social welfare law (SWL), from April 2013. Around 300 advice centres, such as Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres, rely on legal aid income to provide specialist legal advice services in SWL. LAG is calling for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is due to reach the report stage in the House of Lords next week, to be amended to bring back into scope employment, benefits, housing and other areas of civil law that the government plans to cut.

The Transition Fund distributed £105m in grants to charities and other NFP organisations between March and May 2011. Its aim was to assist them to 'adjust to the new spending environment'. The fund was open to all charitable and NFP organisations. LAG has spoken to a number of advice organisations which have lost out on Advice Services Fund grants because they had previously received Transition Fund money. They have been placed on a reserve list for a grant from the fund, but they point out that unlike the Advice Services Fund, the Transition Fund was not intended to replace cash lost from legal aid or other funding intended for providing services to the public.

A review of advice services is also being undertaken by the Cabinet Office. Advice centres across the UK are facing a crisis of shrinking grants and contracts at a time when the demand for their services is rising. The review, which was announced by Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, in November last year, shows that the government at least recognises this. However, it will have to be backed up with a long term financial commitment to the advice sector if it is to have any credibility. The one-off £20m Advice Services Fund in the current financial year does not achieve this and risks appearing to be little more than a bribe to buy off opposition to the legal aid cuts and to secure a government majority for the Legal Aid Bill.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Further concession on Legal Aid Bill

It looks like a Liberal Democrat peer has inadvertently admitted to members of the Justice for All campaign that the government is going to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) to allow areas of law to be potentially brought back into scope at a later date.

LAG has been aware for some weeks now that Liberal Democrat parliamentarians have been meeting government ministers behind the scenes to try and persuade them to offer some concessions on the Legal Aid Bill. One of the points they have been pushing is for an amendment to clause 8(2) of the bill, which in its current form only allows for areas of law to be omitted from the legal aid scheme. Campaigners, including LAG and Justice for All, have been asking for this clause to be amended to include a provision to allow work to be brought back into the scope of the legal aid scheme. Non-political crossbench peers, many of which are distinguished lawyers such as Lord Pannick, have also argued for the change.

Justice for All, which is supported by LAG, urged its members to write to peers and MPs to ask the government to think again about the cuts to legal aid. It has been stressing to them how the loss of advice on welfare benefits and other areas of civil law will impact on vulnerable groups. In reply to this correspondence the prominent Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Thomas, revealed:

'You may know that Liberal Democrat pressure has already achieved a concession from the coalition government that the Lord Chancellor should have the power to place areas of legal assistance back into scope, as well as simply remove areas, as the bill stated originally. Hopefully, that power will be exercised if some of the fears expressed of denial of access to justice come to pass.'

LAG believes that the government is considering bringing forward a number of amendments for the report stage of the bill, which is due to commence on 5 March in the House of Lords. Ministers are unlikely to have wanted a planned concession like this to have been revealed before the report stage, as it would risk losing any impact in placating opposition to the bill, which so far from peers has been overwhelmingly hostile.

While the concession to allow areas of law back into scope is significant, because it gives some hope that the planned cuts can be reversed, in terms of its impact on the public it represents a hollow victory. It does not alter the fact that from April next year 650,000 people will lose out on help with common civil legal problems unless the Legal Aid Bill is amended to reverse these planned cuts.

Katie Brown, co-chairperson of Young Legal Aid Lawyers told LAG: 'We have no doubt that once the consequences of these ill thought out reforms come to light, the government will have to use this provision to bring areas of law back into scope. In the meantime there will be many people who will end up as victims of the government’s short-sighted proposals, as they are left in the lurch in the time between the bill being passed and areas being brought back into scope. As such this concession is not enough, and we will therefore continue to put pressure on peers to vote for amendments designed to secure access to justice for the most vulnerable.'

the Justice for All website for a briefing on clause 8.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Foreign National Prisoners

Last night LAG launched its latest book, Foreign National Prisoners: law and practice. The law permits prisoners from foreign countries to continue being detained on completion of their sentences pending deportation. The book discusses the legal procedures which permit this, and prisoners’ rights to appeal against their detention and removal. In some circumstances the Home Secretary is permitted to detain foreign nationals pending their deportation even if they are not accused of committing a crime in this country. Abu Qatada, whose application for bail was decided on Monday, is one such case. This is a controversial area of law, as the detention of people for long periods who have either completed their sentences, or have not even been charged with an offence, is contrary to previously accepted principles of UK law.

Abu Qatada promulgates repugnant views in support of al-Qaida, but has never been charged with a crime in the UK. He has been detained for over six years, as the application for his extradition to Jordon was considered. The Jordanian authorities want him to stand trial on terrorism-related offences. Edward Fitzgerald QC, head of Doughty Street Chambers, said at the book launch last night: 'Like all great books it has come at the right moment.' Referring to the Abu Qatada case, in which he represented Qatada in his bail application this week, he added: 'It is a book being launched into stormy waters.'

Defending the rights of foreign national prisoners is not a popular cause - much of public and political opinion is hostile towards convicted criminals and people accused of crimes in foreign countries, such as Abu Qatada, being allowed to remain in this country. However, often in these cases the law has to work impartially for the sake of both justice and the greater moral good. The Qatada case hinges on whether a trial can be considered fair if it relies on evidence obtained by torture. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it would be illegal to deport Qatada in these circumstances. Torture is wrong and cannot be condoned by a civilised country. LAG believes this is a moral and legal principle which supersedes the deportation of a criminal suspect no matter how hateful their political opinions may be.

Speaking to LAG, the book’s main author Laura Dubinsky said: 'Foreign national former prisoners, including non-violent offenders, are often administratively detained for prolonged periods after sentence completion, sometimes notwithstanding very remote chances of deportation actually occurring.' She explained that the UK is now alone in the European Union in having no time limits on the administrative detention of immigrants; and that there are no automatically scheduled bail hearings for those held under Immigration Act powers in the UK: 'Effectively, the onus is on a detained immigrant to seek bail. All this poses grave obstacles for those unfamiliar with the justice system and who may not speak English; these difficulties are now being compounded by a lack of legal representation, as legal aid cuts are forcing the closure of many services which provided publicly funded legal assistance for migrants.'

Laura Dubinsky is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and practises in public law, specialising in immigration law, prison law and challenges to administrative detention. Hamish Arnott, a solicitor at the firm Bhatt Murphy and Alasdair Mackenzie, another barrister at Doughty Street Chambers specialising in this field, also contributed chapters to the book.

Link to the decision in the Abu Qatada bail application case

Foreign National Prisoners: law and practice

Friday, 3 February 2012

Legal Aid Bill domestic violence concession?

So far the government has made two concessions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill ('the Legal Aid Bill'), currently in the committee stage of the House of Lords. It seems more concessions might be on the way before the bill is approved.

Speaking at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum yesterday, Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly said the government was considering the amendments which had been suggested so far by peers. When questioned by LAG on whether the government was willing to reconsider the definition of domestic violence contained in the bill, he said that this was 'in the mix at the moment' and that while he believed that the current definition covered the same points as that of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), 'if there is a way of making people happy on this issue we will do it'.

Campaign organisations including the Women’s Institute and LAG have argued that the ACPO definition should be included in the bill. ACPO defines domestic violence as,

'... any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults ... who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality'.

The bill currently uses a different definition referring to physical or mental abuse which includes sexual abuse and: ' ... abuse in the form of violence, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation'.

The ACPO definition is wider and some experts believe that the government might be forced to accept this definition by the courts if the current definition was approved without amendment. LAG believes the government might be taking the view that it should bow to the inevitable and amend it, especially as the Home Office is currently engaged in a consultation process on adopting a wider definition of domestic violence.

The detailed criteria which have to be met in domestic violence cases to qualify for legal aid have not been included in the bill. This is of great significance in ensuring victims get the help they need. Details of this will follow in secondary legislation. In the debate on the bill, Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former senior family judge, asked for the criteria to be published before the report stage so that peers can scrutinise them.

Jonathan Djanogly was more evasive when questioned by LAG on whether the government would concede over the amendment to reinstate legal aid for personal injury cases involving children, a move which is supported by Lord Tebbit and Lord Newton, the former Conservative Cabinet ministers. The minister said this is 'at the margins of what [the government is] looking at'. In response to a question from Cristina Sarb, a policy officer at the charity Scope, he said that the government was not considering bringing welfare benefits back into the scope of the legal aid system.

Earlier in the meeting Roger Smith, director of Justice, had lambasted the government over its failure to recognise the danger of not having an independent appeals system over decisions on entitlement to legal aid: 'It’s a godsend to a litigator,' to be able to argue bias in the process for cases against the government, he warned. Roger Smith also observed that the government’s decision to cut legal aid was a political choice and if the cuts went ahead he predicted it would lead to 'the regeneration of the kind of movement we had in the 1970s,' which was originally responsible for widening access to civil justice.

The government has given way on means-testing advice in police stations and included young people between the ages of 16-25 in the category of people able to claim legal aid for special educational needs cases. LAG believes that we need to keep the pressure on the government to win more concessions on the bill.

Image: LAG: Jonathan Djanogly speaking at the event yesterday

See the report LAG commissioned from the Women's Institute and other news on the legal aid bill.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Lords lash out at Legal Aid Bill

Crossbench and Liberal Democrat peers seem increasingly unhappy with Justice Minister Lord McNally’s attempt to force through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill ('the Legal Aid Bill') unamended. Talking to peers after the second day of the bill's committee stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday, LAG formed the impression that they were frustrated by what they see as the glib approach adopted by Lord McNally in addressing the detail of the bill.

Labour’s Lord Bach, Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords, led the attack against the bill in the debate on the amendments, saying that the government had 'failed to get to grips with the serious consequences of their proposed legislation' and that the bill would have 'profound effects on access to justice and people’s lives'. Speaking to LAG after the debate, Lord Bach said he believed it was unlikely that any votes would be taken in the committee stage, which continues on Monday next week, but that votes on amendments would happen in the report stage, expected to take place late next month or in March.

Peers seem emboldened by their votes on Wednesday this week on amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, including their rejection of plans to means-test employment and support allowance payments to disabled people after a year. Lord Carlile QC, a Liberal Democrat peer and a greatly respected legal figure, told LAG yesterday: 'The House of Lords showed last night it is capable of forcing the government to reconsider policies.' The defeats on the Welfare Reform Bill were the result of a high number of votes against the government from the politically neutral crossbenchers and the Labour Opposition. Liberal Democrat peers mainly voted with the government, but some have hinted to LAG that unless changes are made on the Legal Aid Bill they will be forced, albeit reluctantly, to vote against the government.

A Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords willing to be upfront about what will happen is Lord Phillips. Speaking at the launch of LAG’s London Advice Watch report yesterday, he referred to 'disaffection across the House of Lords' over the Legal Aid Bill and warned: 'There is no question. If the government makes no concessions, there will be votes and the government will lose.' He added that it was 'reasonable to expect major changes at the report stage of the bill'.

Lord Phillips, who is a patron of LAG and one of its founders, stressed that it was a 'lousy time to be in government' because the economic outlook is so bad and that 'cuts across the board are necessary'. However, he believes that 'the cuts have fallen on legal aid harshly' and questions if it is 'legitimate to deny citizens the means to enforce their rights'. In an impassioned speech he said: 'Justice is fundamental to our democracy' and that legal aid spending was a small but an important part of government spending: 'five per cent of defence spending would be enough to fund what is to be cut from legal aid for least three years'.

What the Welfare Reform Bill amendments show clearly is that peers are reluctant to support measures that impact harshly on vulnerable groups such as disabled people and children. With the Legal Aid Bill there is the additional factor of the crossbench and other peers who are legal experts. They have deep concerns about the detail of the bill, which the government is failing to address, such as the criteria which victims of domestic violence have to meet to qualify for legal aid and the lack of independence in decisions on entitlement to legal aid. Their discontent is likely to grow as the shadow boxing of the committee stage continues. LAG understands that approaches from government peers to ministers to thrash out compromises over key concerns about the bill have so far been rebuffed and this has added to the disaffection felt by government supporters in the House of Lords. It seems unless Lord McNally throws some significant concessions to his backbenchers the government will be risking substantial defeats at the report stage of the bill.

A full report on the launch of the London Advice Watch report will appear in the February issue of Legal Action journal.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Massive support from Londoners for advice services

Research published today by LAG has found that 88 per cent of Londoners believe advice services should be free to everyone, or to people on or below the national average income of £25,000. The London Advice Watch (LAW) report also finds that 77,000 Londoners will lose out on help with civil legal problems and that £9.33 million will be cut from advice services, if the reductions in legal aid proposed by the government go ahead.

The LAW report used data from an opinion poll survey carried out by polling company GfK NOP for LAG, as well as interviews with providers of advice services and their representatives in London. GfK NOP interviewed 1,603 people across 32 London boroughs.

In addition to overwhelming support for the availability of free services the opinion poll found that:

• 94% of people who got advice received a free service.
• 81% of people were satisfied with the service they received.
• 65% of people said their situation improved due to the advice they had received.

London’s population of 7.6m is served by 900 legal aid suppliers including 80 charities. Many of these will be forced to close or severely curtail their services if the government goes ahead with its plans to cut back on civil legal aid. For example, Law Centres in London will lose 43 per cent of their funding and some may be forced to close. Other advice agencies will also be badly hit. Brent Citizens Advice Bureau holds legal aid contracts in housing, benefits, debt and immigration law. Under the government's plans, detailed in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through parliament, it will lose £275,000 a year in funding and will be forced to close its specialist casework services in these areas of law.

LAG anticipates that amendments to the Legal Aid Bill, which would put back into scope the areas of work being cut in housing, employment, benefits, debt and immigration law, will be debated next week in the House of Lords. LAG is urging peers and the government to think again, before cutting legal aid to thousands of Londoners and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the country who will lose out on help with civil legal problems if the bill is not amended.

LAG is launching the LAW report this afternoon at a special meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid in the House of Commons. The meeting will be hosted by Yvonne Fovargue MP and speakers will include Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington in south London, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile and Andy Slaughter MP, Labour MP and Shadow Justice Minister.

Read the full report on: LAG's website

Pic: LAG

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Legal Aid Bill in the House of Lords

Before the Christmas recess, momentum was building in the House of Lords on amendments to the Legal Aid Bill (or to give it its full title, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill). Next week, peers will recommence their detailed scrutiny of the bill in committee. LAG believes the level opposition to the bill among peers will not have dissipated over the festive season.

Former Cabinet members in Margaret Thatcher’s governments, Lord Tebbit and Lord Newton, are the most prominent Conservatives pushing for changes to the bill. They have put their names to amendments which would preserve legal aid in clinical negligence cases involving children. Crossbench non-party political peers such as Baroness Butler-Sloss, the well-respected former senior judge, are supporting a raft of amendments which would alter the bill’s provisions on legal aid in domestic violence cases, matters involving children and other issues. Prominent lawyer crossbenchers such as Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Pannick, a member of the Lords Constitution Committee, are leading the charge against provisions in the bill which, if they are not amended, would leave ministers open to the accusation of political interference in decisions on granting legal aid. They are also concerned about clauses in the bill which seek to curtail a suspect’s right to legal advice when detained in the police station.

The government is likely to argue that much of the detail of the circumstances in which someone can claim support from the legal aid scheme will be dealt with in secondary legislation. For example, in domestic violence cases it wants the specific criteria which a victim must meet to qualify for legal aid to be covered in a set of regulations which are not included in the bill. Government supporters are also likely to argue that sufficient safeguards are built into the decision-making process on granting legal aid to prevent political interference. Peers, especially those with an interest in legal matters, are not likely to accept such assurances, preoccupied as they rightly are with the detail of the law and the implications of what is proposed.

LAG believes the House of Lords as a whole will want to scrutinise and amend the detail of a bill which is mainly aimed at saving cash from the Ministry of Justice budget at the expense of civil rights and access to justice. All the indications are that peers are very exercised about the impact of the proposals contained in the bill on vulnerable groups such as children, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities and other minority groups. It is likely that a high level of vocal support for amendments in the committee stage to protect these groups will persuade the government to bring forward concessions at the final report stage in the Lords to avoid embarrassing defeats. If it does not, it could face a tussle between the Lords and the Commons in the spring, with time running out to approve the legislation before the parliamentary session ends in the run-up to the local elections on 3 May.

Justice for All (JfA) has collated the briefings prepared by organisations for the committee stage in the House of Lords, see:
the JfA website