JusticeWatch: Supporting the next generation of social welfare lawyers

Farewell to Steve
Steve Hynes is leaving LAG at the end of the month after 11 years as its director. Carol Storer, the former director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, has been appointed as interim director.

‘Steve played a leading role in campaigning against the cuts introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), working with colleagues across the sector to establish the campaign group Justice for All,’ LAG says. He also founded the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support and has been a high-profile commentator on legal aid and access to justice policy.

Hynes said it had been ‘an enjoyable and challenging time’. ‘LASPO continues to be the greatest threat to everything we stand for. I know LAG will continue to expose the damage it has inflicted and to campaign for greater access to justice.’

‘What Steve does not know about access to justice is not worth knowing. The charity has been incredibly fortunate to have benefitted from his tremendous expertise for over a decade, during a time of unprecedented attacks on legal aid in England and Wales.’
Laura Janes, LAG’s chair

Meanwhile LAG  launched launch a new digital service MyPay London to, as the Guardian reported, ‘help freelancers and other workers claim an estimated £3bn a year owed in wages and holiday allowances’ in ‘the latest example of justice moving online’.

The service ‘aims to help people who cannot afford to pay lawyers for advice on lodging their claims’. ‘Legal aid for employment cases was removed by the coalition government in 2013,’ the article continues. The project is backed by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which has led the fight for improved workers’ rights in the gig economy.

‘Cuts to advice services locally have reduced the availability of free advice to the public from charities such as Citizens Advice and Law Centres,’ commented Hynes. ‘With advice related to pay issues, it is difficult to provide services on a commercial basis. Problems such as the non-payment of wages can have a big impact on an employee. The sums at stake are often small and most people on average pay or below are unlikely to be able to afford a solicitor to assist with the problem.’

Court closures
The government has confirmed that it closed 22 magistrates’ courts in Wales over the past eight years, reported the Law Society’s Gazette. Wales had 36 magistrates’ courts in 2010 which dropped to 14 last year. According to justice minister Lord Keen of Elie QC, responding to a parliamentary question: ‘We have closed poor quality, smaller and less efficient courts allowing for resources to be concentrated into a smaller number of better quality and more flexible buildings.’

Ensuring the next generation of social welfare lawyers
The government, legal regulators and others need to come together to ensure that the next generation of lawyers had the chance to study social welfare law, a member of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has argued. According to Neil Rose, writing for Legal Futures, Cathy Gallagher said the MoJ had previously indicated a willingness to address the issue ‘with the sharp post-LASPO contraction in legal aid meaning that fewer lawyers were able to gain experience in social welfare law’.

Apparently Cathy Gallagher, who used to work for the Law Centres Network, reckons that the panel wanted the regulators and the MoJ to address ‘the risk of developing a shortfall of practitioners qualified in many of the area where legal aid has been cut “by reviewing the education and training of the upcoming legal generation”’. ‘Indeed, as a result of representations from the consumer panel and others, during the official consultation meetings, MoJ officials indicated a willingness to approach regulators developing training content to consider anticipated shortfalls in essential areas of access to justice (and legal aid) delivery,’ Gallagher wrote upon the panel’s web site.

She pointed out that the SRA’s plan for the new solicitors qualifying examination did not include mandatory social welfare law modules. ‘An absence of determination to encourage these subjects in future training arguably sends a message that they should not be priority concerns in the evolution of legal practice and training,’ she said.

Gallagher said ‘one of the less talked-about impacts’ of LASPO was ‘the steady disappearance of lawyers qualified to provide specialist legal support to the most vulnerable’.

She cited Suffolk where it took six months to recruit a housing lawyer for a new law centre, after the whole county had been without one for five years. ‘With no housing law practice providing a legal aid service across Suffolk, there was an unfillable gap of geography in placements and limited channels for new trainee lawyers in housing law,’ she argued.

Adolescent posturing
The home secretary Sajid Javid was accused of ‘adolescent tabloid posturing’ over his plans to to strip Shamima Begum of UK citizenship – as reported in The Times’ Brief. ‘He’s acting as though the UK is some kind of banana republic that has no institutional ability to deal with its own citizens,’ said Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, who was DPP between 2003 and 2008, .

Sheffield Hallam University has created its own law firm, SHU Law, reported the Law Society’s Gazette. It claims that it will give students ‘real life work experience’ during their studies. ‘The university claims to be the first to offer a law degree that incorporates work experience into every year of the course,’ it says..

Professor Elizabeth Smart, the university’s head of law, has set up the firm with the help of two solicitors who will work for the firm full time. ‘By placing our students at the centre of a live client clinical environment we are creating a unique learning opportunity that’s reflective of real-life practice. Legal education is nothing without a strong dose of commercial acumen,’ Smart says.


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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