JusticeWatch: Droughts and deserts

Droughts and deserts
Barrister Jo Wilding published new research on the supply side of the market for immigration and asylum legal aid services. The map above shows large areas (in grey) where there are no providers at all. But even in areas where there is at least one provider, the research reveals that ‘advice droughts’ can arise where there is no meaningful access to advice and representation.

Writing for the Justice Gap, Wilding, a barrister at Garden Court, explained: ‘It works like this: the standard fee for asylum work is lower than the amount it costs for a lawyer to do the work properly. Solicitors said the average cost is double the fixed fee; barristers worked out that the simplest cases cost 1.5 times the fixed fee. Lawyers who insist on continuing to provide a high-quality service – ‘doing what needs doing in that particular case’ – lose money on every standard fee case they do. The possibility of escaping the fixed fee, when the case costs triple the amount paid, does not mitigate the losses.’

I wrote about my visit to Suffolk Law Centre for the Byline Times as part of a new ‘Austerity Justice’ column. ‘The county is a striking illustration of the desertification of our advice sector: there is not a single legally aided housing lawyer and barely any family lawyers willing to advise people like Trevor, who has complex and urgent legal needs.’

The Law Centre recently attempted to apply for an immigration contract only to be informed by the Legal Aid Agency that there was no ‘established need’ for such advice in the area.

Last year, the centre won a contract for a much needed housing lawyer. It was the only organisation to tender. The contract was conditional upon the centre being able to recruit a supervising housing lawyer with three years’ experience. The law centre has advertised three times but, so far, not managed to find a suitable candidate to fill the position. ‘It’s a sad reflection of the state of sector,’ Ludwig says.

On the brink of collapse
The criminal justice system was on ‘the brink of collapse’ with ‘every part of the process floundering’, according to the Law Society. The solicitors’ body argued that legal aid means test was set at such a level that it prevented people on low incomes and many in poverty from accessing legal help.

According to the report, people earning between £12,475 and £22,325 a year could be ineligible for legal aid in the magistrates’ court and could be forced to pay contributions towards their legal costs in the Crown Court. People earning more than £22,325 would not qualify for legal aid in the magistrates’ court.

According to the solicitors’ group, the requirement to contribute financially was ‘pushing people well below the minimum income standard’.

‘Since 2011/2012, the Ministry of Justice has lost a quarter of its budget,’ commented Law Society president Christina Blacklaws. ‘This has led to significant cuts to our courts and tribunals, legal advice and representationThis is a system which is, without exaggeration, on the brink of the collapse. For victims and the accused, a journey through the system is akin to a nightmare.’

It is not too late to save our justice system, but we must act urgently to protect it, wrote Steven Littlewood, the national officer at the FDA for the Justice Gap. The FDA, the trade union that represents CPS prosecutors, has teamed up with the Law Society and the Bar Council to launch a Manifesto for Justice calling for proper investment in our Criminal Justice System.

Bar news
Criminal barristers who had threatened to strike were ‘set to see their fees double’, reported The Daily Telegraph. Barristers threatened a walk out on July 1 over ‘day rates as low as £46.50 for preparing complex court cases, effectively less than the minimum wage’.

Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said proposals offered by the Government on Wednesday ‘would transform the lives of barristers who prosecute’.

Standard appearance fees are set rise from £46.50 to £90, sentencing fees from £60 to £125 and payments for appeals against conviction from £117 to £250. According to the paper, barristers could earn £1,000 to £1,500 more for a typical two-week trial.

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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