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.