Weekly round-up 10 – 14 February

justice2LAA to take over processing of legal aid applications: Criminal legal aid applications will soon be processed by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) instead of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).  According to an announcement from the LAA, the transfer has been agreed between the LAA and HMCTS, and is expected to start in October 2014. The LAA is aiming to take on all of the work by March 2015.  The announcement from the LAA said: ‘A key goal now is to ensure this change dovetails with our commitment to improve criminal legal aid processes.’  The LAA is also expanding electronic working for crime providers, and is planning to roll out the current crime CRM14 eForm across England and Wales in the coming months.  ‘This supports the wider government aim to develop digital public services,’ said the Agency.  Providers in the north east and Essex have already been trialling the new online forms and, according to the LAA, ‘have welcomed the new way of working’.

Murder trials threatened by barristers’ boycott: More criminal trials, including murders and rapes, are likely to be disrupted in the ongoing dispute over legal aid cuts, The TImes reported this week. A number of serious fraud trials have already been affected by criminal barristers’ refusal to act for defendants at new lower rates.  But chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman has said that barristers are now considering refusing work not just in very high costs cases, but for other serious trials including murders, rapes and lesser frauds in an attempt to ‘bring the criminal justice system to a halt.’ Lithman said: ‘We are calling on Mr Grayling at least to postpone these measures for several months — until an ongoing review of advocacy has been completed — and meanwhile to engage with us to show we can find alternative savings.’ According to The Times, Grayling has said he is willing to look at other ways to find the total of £220 million from the £1.9 billion legal aid bill but insisted that the final sum saved must be the same.

Moorhead: ‘criminal defence system more fairly described as precarious than world class’: A blog by Professor Richard Moorhead on the ‘precariousness’ of the criminal bar was widely shared on social media this week. Whilst acknowledging that the government’s legal aid cuts are partially to blame for the precariousness of criminal defence work, Moorhead put forward two other factors: ‘the reduction in the volume of criminal defence work and the self-employed model which makes it harder and riskier for people to enter the profession’.  Describing the self-employed model as ‘a significant part of the problem’, Moorhead said: ‘The Bar can either do something about it (which would mean a radical change in its business model) or it can plead for government spending to increase (or not be cut as drastically).’ He added: ‘Neither approach is unreasonable, but only one approach has much chance of happening.’  Moorhead went on to argue that the increased riskiness of entry is likely to deter candidates from working class backgrounds pursuing the Bar, but that ‘the idea that public spending cuts are going to be successfully resisted on the basis that they are necessary to solve the Bar’s diversity problems is, to put it mildly, unlikely.’ The government is not listening to arguments that significant cuts in real and absolute cost will further damage the quality of the criminal defence system, said Moorhead, and therefore it is ‘unlikely to be swayed by social mobility arguments.’. He concluded:  ‘Only catastrophic failures, like serious trials not running, are likely to persuade them.  There are some signs such catastrophes may shortly be upon us but the Bar will have to sort out its diversity problems on its own.’

The Lord Chancellor’s case for these cuts has been dismantled: Following last weekend’s ‘One Bar: One Voice’ meeting, representatives from across the legal profession wrote a letter to The Times this week arguing that ‘the Lord Chancellor’s case for these cuts has been systematically dismantled, and he should listen to the experts before it is too late.’  Bar Council chairman, Nicholas Lavender QC, leader of the South-Eastern circuit Sarah Forshaw QC and pupil barrister Hannah Evans were among the signatories to the letter, which argued that the cuts, if implemented, ‘would have a devastating effect on the public’s access to justice and the Rule of Law.’ The lawyers continued: ‘The Bar is united in its concern that quality and diversity will be driven out to facilitate unnecessary cuts, which will end up costing more than they save. The outstanding international reputation of our legal system, which generates billions of pounds in exports each year, is also at risk of lasting damage.’

Inquest directors: Legal aid cuts lead to injustice: The co-directors of Inquest told The Guardian this week that the charity is seeing the impact of legal aid cuts on ‘traumatised bereaved families’, who are involved in ‘a complex process about which they have no choice’.  According to Helen Shaw and Deborah Coles, such families are ‘increasingly denied funding, given very limited funding or required to make large contributions so that their questions can be asked.’ They added: ‘The protracted and intrusive process frequently leaves funding decisions to the last minute causing further unnecessary distress.’ The Inquest co-directors contrasted this with the public funding provided to ‘teams of lawyers representing the interests of the prison service, healthcare providers and other local or national government agencies, often present together at the one inquest.’  Shaw and Coles called for a justice system ensuring equal access to justice for all. ‘Where someone dies in the care of or at the hands of the state this is fundamental,’ they said.

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    There are plenty of other options that could be explored instead of reducing the Legal Aid budget so drastically. I don’t think Mr Grayling has seriously considered the affect this will have on access to legal aid at street level, and instead has looked at the big picture.

    Even a small fraction of the proposed cut would severely hinder the chance of legal aid for some families, which is a risk to the equality of the justice system that cannot be allowed to happen in a democratised society.

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