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.