JusticeWatch: Is it time to axe the LAA?

We will not be complicit
‘If universal credit is so convoluted and ineffective that voluntary sector organisations are relied upon, then it should not be implemented at all,’ said Greater Manchester Law Centre this week. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham predicted that the number of rough sleepers on the city’s streets could ‘at least double’ this winter unless the government halted its rollout.

Apparently a local job centre approached the law centre before the introduction of the benefit calling on them to provide computers and supervisors to help people to access the scheme. ‘This is not the role of the voluntary sector,’ the GMLC says. ‘We will not be complicit in a scheme which results in further adversity and punishment for vulnerable people.’

In the law centre’s first year, it helped clients claim back £370,000 in lost benefits. Their recent AGM outlined their plans for strategic litigation, which means using legal cases to challenge and change welfare policy.

Tweet of the week

Is it time to axe the LAA?
It was ‘a bitter irony that the one part of the Ministry of Justice seemingly untouched by austerity (until recently, at least) has been the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA’s) own running costs,’ I wrote in the New Law Journal. Despite decades of frozen legal aid rates followed by the recent round of brutal cuts, the administrative costs of the LAA have been heading north since it was created in 2013. Meanwhile, the ministry’s overall budget having been cut by 25% since LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012).

The article looked at both the recently published Bach Commission on Access to Justice and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s new manifesto .

The LAA’s admin budget fell for the first time last year to £95m from £112m for 2015–16. The experience of LAPG members is that the quality of decision-making by the LAA has been ‘deteriorating’ over its life. The Bach Commission highlighted the oppressive nature of the audit regime. It flagged up the experience of a West Midlands firm which, in the nine months to the end of April this year, was subjected to two on-site audits; a peer review; a contract manager visit; and a quality of advice check by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. ‘Providers feel like they are constantly under audit—and sometimes they are,’ it noted.

‘It is an indictment of the current system that many legal aid lawyers, in the words of LAPG, regard the LAA as ‘focused more on refusing legal aid and disallowing claims for costs for work done under the legal aid scheme’ rather than enabling access to justice.’
Jon Robins, New Law Journal

Bullying judges
Barrister Mary Aspinall-Miles let rip on the subject of obnoxious judges. ‘I have been shouted at, sledged, demeaned & occasionally been lied to,’ she tweeted. ‘How they sleep at night is their business but it has meant I can’t.’

The lawyer, an executive committee member of the Criminal Bar Association, later told the Legal Futures site that it was ‘time for someone to put their head over the parapet’. ‘The vast majority of modern judges are professional and courteous, but once in a while the moment comes when you get a judge who doesn’t cope with the stress, and things are said,’ she said.

Aspinall-Miles said she was ‘still smarting’ about a comment made to her by a judge ‘without foundation’ 10 days ago. A QC and recorder who goes by the Twitter handle @brummybar weighed in, tweeted in support saying that it was ‘very hard to not be intimidated by a judge set on bullying you’. ‘I have twice been reduced to tears by judges, thankfully both retired but those days remain seared on my soul,’ she says.

Promises not kept
Immigration lawyers at Simpson Millar used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the Home Office to reveal the number of human rights appeals made to the first-tier tribunal in since the implementation of the Immigration Act 2014.

The legislation has reduced a person’s right to appeal against 17 different immigration decisions to just three (refusal of a human rights claim; refusal of a protection claim; and revocation of protection status).

In response to criticism about delays in the immigration appeal system, the then Justice Minister, Shailesh Vara, stated in the House of Commons in November 2015: ‘As a consequence of the Immigration Act 2014, we anticipate the number of appeals going down. We are keeping an eye on the numbers and at the moment we do not see a particular concern, but if there is one, we will make sure that there are more sittings.’

In 2015, 15,142 appeals were received and only 87 were successful in that same year; in 2016, 27,563 appeals were made – prompting calls for more funding to deal with a tightening bottleneck of cases – 2,650 appeals were successful, but less than half of those (1,032) were from people outside the UK

‘What experts feared and warned would happen has indeed come true; access to justice is reduced and we are left with a system that is entirely unable to cope,’ commented Emma Brooksbank, head of Immigration at Simpson Millar. ‘The promise of extra funding to relieve the backlog has not been kept, and delays are increasing in the Tribunals. The impact on children, some of whom are now living separated from their parents, is particularly significant and devastating.’

You can read the results here

Bar shuts out the kids
The Bar Council has confirmed that a nursery scheme in London was ‘no longer able to take additional barrister progeny because it is over-subscribed’, according to the Times’ Brief newsletter. Apparently, the Bar has ‘organised a deal for barrister parents with a nursery near the Smithfield meat market’ since 2013 offering special rates.




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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