I live in Suffolk, a county where according to the government’s own website there are no legal aid lawyers specialising in public law. If you go to the ‘find a legal aid advisor’ page on Gov.uk and type in ‘public law’, you are directed to firms all more than 56 miles out of county, which would mean prohibitively expensive travel costs for many clients.
Why am I even looking? Well, I am director of legal services of Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. As well as undertaking community projects in criminal justice, prisons, health and education, we run a Lawworks Law Advice Centre where 70 local lawyers provide half an hour’s free legal advice for anyone in Suffolk. So, understandably, local people and charities come to us to help us find lawyers who can advise them.
In the last few weeks, several advice agencies locally have noted a number of EU claimants having their benefits stopped following a ‘genuine prospect of work’ interview, where there had been no preliminary checks on the individual’s residency status and thus whether the interview was even appropriate in the first place.
This was resulting in claimants’ benefits being wrongly stopped. While claimants can appeal, such mistakes should never have been happening in the first place. Quite a few of claimants were needlessly suffering hardship while waiting for their appeals to be heard and, in one case we were told about this has resulted in homelessness.
My agency would like a public law specialist to look at this issue, to see if the decision about the process is administered could be challenged, so that the problem stops for everyone. We could contact out of county providers but experience has shown that firms some distance away are reluctant to take on cases, citing the difficulties of having face to face contact with clients (because clients can’t afford to travel), and using matter starts for cases which are out of their area.
Why do we need specialist advice? Because we know first hand the benefit that using the threat of judicial review in a skillful way can quickly have on the quality of decision-making.
Since 2008, ISCRE has been facilitating a community Stop and Search Reference Group to scrutinise the use of stop and search powers by Suffolk Police. To cover the costs, we received a small grant from the police. In about 2010, Suffolk Police, citing the need for cuts, suddenly wrote to say they were stopping the funding. There had been no consultation nor equality impact assessment. With the assistance of Rosa Curling of Leigh Day, the Reference Group sent a detailed and expert letter before claim, which led the police to withdraw the decision. Following a proper consultation process, the funding was restored. The Reference Group thrives and is cited by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary for good practice in terms of community scrutiny.
Last September, we had the privilege of welcoming Professor Maurice Sunkin of Essex University and Shauneen Lambe of Just For Kids Law to speak to our AGM about their work and the power and benefit of judicial review to encourage public bodies to make better decisions. In his 2009 research paper, Judicial Review Litigation as an Incentive to Change in Local Authority Public Services in England & Wales, Professor Sunkin and his co-authors found evidence that authorities improve (at least in terms of the official measures) when the scale of challenge against them increases. They do not know why this is the case, but it indicates that authorities learn from these challenges, particularly where they start experiencing increased numbers of them from the level that they had previously become accustomed to.
Here in Suffolk we see the mirror opposite situation. Too often there is no risk of challenge, so poor practice by public bodies persists.
We did look at bidding for a legal aid contract ourselves but were in the catch-22 situation of not being able to identify a part-time lawyer locally with the relevant experience to comply with the legal aid supervisor rules and without being able to offer the financial certainty required to attract someone to relocate. If the situation in our county is to continue, then in order to ensure vulnerable local people are protected from poor decision-making, the legal aid agency must make it much easier for them to access remote public law advice quickly.
Better still, we need a local legal aid public lawyer.
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