Weekly round-up: w/c March 25th

News Digest for week commencing 25 March 2013, by Emma Walker

April 1st changes are no laughing matter and fools will not be suffered gladly: Wednesday saw a raft of updates from the Legal Services Commission (‘LSC’) about changes on 1 April 2013.  The announcements included a final call for candidates to register for the LSC’s Legal Aid reform training events, which are due to end on 10 April 2013.  There was also a reminder that the LSC’s transition to the Legal Aid Agency on 1 April 2013 means its branding will be changing and that providers have until 30 June 2013 to stop using the old names and logos.  The LSC also provided warnings about the need for new hard copy legal aid forms to be used from 1 April 2013.  Failure to use the new mandatory civil and criminal forms will result in rejected applications and nil assessments being carried out.  Finally there was guidance on the changes to maximum rates that can be claimed for certain types of experts after the cuts come in force.

Ombudsman upholds complaint against LSC for maladministration resulting in injustice: This week’s Legal Aid updates follow on from last week’s apology by the LSC to firms and organisations adversely affected by an ‘Unrecouped Payment on Account’ exercise, which was administered improperly between 1996 and 2006.  The announcement came after the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) found that the LSC’s delay in carrying out the recoupment exercise was ‘so long’ and some its communication ‘so poor’ that the process was ‘maladministrative’.   The PHSO described the LSC’s behaviour as ‘an injustice to the taxpayer and to citizens more generally, on whose behalf the fund is ultimately administered’.  The PHSO recommended that the LSC acknowledge its mistakes and apologise.  The LSC will now consider representations from solicitors who consider that they were caused an injustice as a result of the delay between national UPOA exercises.  Guidance is available on the LSC website about how to make a complaint, which affected practices must lodge with the LSC before 17 June 2013.

Government suffers further defeats by the Lords over its plans to cut Legal Aid: Peers passed a motion from the former Labour Justice Minister, Lord Bach, which ‘regretted‘ the coalition had broken a promise that Legal Aid would be available for welfare benefits appeals brought on a point of law against a Tribunal decision.  Peers also passed the regret motion of crossbencher Baroness Grey-Thompson’s on the failure to deliver sufficiently wide access to Legal Aid services for disabled persons.  A third regret motion proposed by Labour’s Baroness Scotland, was passed, which recorded the failure to deliver adequate legal aid provision for victims of domestic violence, that significant numbers of victims will not be able to satisfy the evidential criteria, resulting in a diminution of access to justice.  Baroness Scotland raised the point that domestic violence victims will be exposed to an increased risk of injury and death, as a result of the failure.

Justice will be ill-served by the emasculation of Legal Aid: In his leading judgment published on Wednesday of this week, recently retired Court of Appeal judge, Sir Alan Ward, slammed the impending Legal Aid cuts by saying ‘we may have to accept that we live in austere times, but as I come to the end of 18 years’ service in this court, I shall not refrain from expressing my conviction that justice will be ill served indeed by this emasculation of legal aid’.   Reflecting on the appeal in question, Ward opined that it ‘would certainly never have occurred if the litigants had been represented’.  He added that ‘with more and more self-represented litigants, this problem is not going to go away’.  With the cuts coming in on Monday of next week, it can only be expected that the Courts will see a rise in litigants-in-person and the particular problems they present for the justice system.  Ward warned that ‘it may be saving the Legal Services Commission, which no longer offers legal aid for this kind of litigation, but saving expenditure in one public department in this instance simply increases it in the courts’.  He added that ‘the expense of three judges of the Court of Appeal dealing with this kind of appeal is enormous. The consequences by way of delay of other appeals which need to be heard are unquantifiable’.  Ward also stated that the Ministry of Justice’s expectation that mediation will offer an alternative to Legal Aid ‘remains a pious hope’ when parties are unwilling to try it.

Keep it simple, stupid: On the issue of litigants-in-person, the International Bar Association last week published insightful quotes from the former Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, and Clifford Chance’s former head of Policy and Government Affairs, Michael Smyth, who was awarded a CBE in 2009 for his services to pro bono workWoolf was quoted as saying that the Legal Aid cuts may inflict ‘extreme’ psychological damage on people forced to represent themselves in court.  Smyth meanwhile was reported to have said that it is by no means unusual that self-represented litigants start off with one relatively good point, but, not having had professional advice at that initial stage, they go slightly off-trackUnfortunately, over the years, the good point recedes from view and they become obsessed with process and legal conspiracies. But who is to say you or I wouldn’t end up like that, subject to those kinds of pressures?’  Lord Woolf’s recommendation is that each court has a help desk where litigants can receive professional advice, he advised: ‘the government needs to treat the legal system as it treats the health service’, adding that ‘there is a pressing need for caring in the legal system’.  Smyth’s view is that better public legal education should be given, ideally by incorporating it into the National Curriculum.  For Woolf, author of the 1996 Access to Justice Report, Parliament’s perpetual aim to make the law ‘more and more inaccessible’ is a constant frustration.  Woolf’s caution to the Government is ‘only legislate when you have to legislate’ and besides ‘if you’re going to do away with lawyers, for God’s sake make it simple’.

Public Law Project launches LASPO-line: 8 April 2013 will see the launch of a Civil Legal Advice Line run by the Public Law Project.  The telephone advice line is aimed at advisers who have queries about the new Civil Legal Aid regime under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which will come into force on 1 April 2013.  The service will deal with all LASPO-related Legal Aid issues, including exceptional funding, scope, means and the Telephone Gateway.  The free telephone advice line (0808 165 0170) will open from Monday 8 April 2013 and calls will be answered between 10am and 11am on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Social mobility promoted by proceeds from College of Law sale: This week’s Gazette brought news that the Legal Education Foundation (‘LEF’) has provided the Sutton Trust, a foundation dedicated to improving social mobility through education, with a £1.2m grant to help 1,200 sixth formers from less privileged backgrounds pursue a career in law through its Pathways to Law programme.  In an announcement on its website, the Sutton Trust explained LEF’s grant would be matched by a further £1.2m from leading law firms and universities, providing £2.4m in funding for the programme’s next phase.  The programme was set up in 2006 following research by the Sutton Trust and the College of Law that showing that the top echelons of the legal profession were drawn from a pool of people with a narrow range of social backgrounds.  The programme, which is the largest access initiative of its kind and has already benefitted 2000 students, is targeted at sixth form students whose parents have not been to university, or who have been eligible for free school meals, with preference given to those in lower performing schools and poorer areas.  Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, remarked on how ‘The programme is really opening-up opportunities for young people from non-professional families to become the next generation of lawyers’.  Guy Beringer, Chairman of the Legal Education Foundation, which was set up in 2012 with the sale proceeds of the College of Law with the aim to promote the advancement of legal education and the study of law, said that ’the Foundation is very pleased to continue its support for this important scheme. We are encouraged by the growing participation of universities and law firms and this is evidence that the scheme benefits them as well as the many participating students’.

 

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