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.