Weekly round-up: 3 December 2012, compiled by Emma Walker.
‘Pyrrhic victory’ for Legal Aid funding: Following reports last week of practitioners’ fears that the Government had ‘reneged on its promise to provide legal aid to people in urgent need of legal assistance’, draft regulations derived from LASPO were this week defeated in the House of Lords by a margin of ten votes. The rejected regulations intended to deny funding to people appealing welfare benefits cases at the first-tier tribunal on a point of law. During the debate, Lord McNally, the Minister of State for Justice, agreed to amend another regulation about legal aid for public cases, which critics argued would have restricted the availability of legal aid in judicial review cases. Lord Bach, the Shadow Justice Minister who motioned the vote, said of the ‘victory for Parliament’ that it was the “first fatal defeat of a government order or regulation for five years”.
Commission to consider Social Welfare in context of slashed public funding for advice: The Low Commission headed up by the vice-president and former chairman of the RNIB, Lord Low, launched this week with the aim of developing a strategy for ‘access to advice and support on Social Welfare Law in England and Wales’. The Commission is expected to look at ways of reducing demand for, as well as new approaches to delivering and funding Social Welfare advice. Once the Commission has reviewed the evidence submitted by individuals and organisations working in the Social Welfare Law and advice sectors, it will consult on its emerging recommendations and produce a final report by this time next year.
New Legal Aid hub to go live: The Legal Services Commission has announced it is moving to a new justice site due to go live next week. From Monday 10 December 2012 users will be able to access a joined-up site covering legal aid, courts, tribunals and wider Ministry of Justice content. A new Legal Aid hub on the site will also contain content focussed at Advocates and Legal Aid providers.
Last Labour government went ‘too far’: According to Jack Straw the reformed judicial appointments system did not allow talented women and ethnic minorities to come to the fore. He argued that although an independent appointments commission is the right model on a macro level, there is room for improvement down the line. Straw suggested ‘sensitive feedback’ to talented applicants who just miss out and ‘tie-break provisions’ to choose between equally-qualified candidates would help to redress the diversity balance. He also advocated that successive Lord Chancellors should claw back some of the power lost when the Judicial Appointments Commission started, by gaining a seat on the panels that select the five most senior judges in England and Wales and the twelve UK Supreme Court justices.
Law Society says ‘get ready for LASPO’: the Law Society has published guidance on its website about the preparations practitioners should be making before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act comes into force next Spring. The summary produced by the Law Society’s Head of Legal Aid, Richard Miller, is accompanied by a podcast recording of the recent nationwide roadshow on the subject and considers in greater detail, the implications of the changes.
Scottish legal aid row rumbles on: The Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, has increased the income threshold above which defendant’s will be asked to contribute to their legal costs. However, ‘fundamental disagreement’ continues between the Scottish Government and frontline criminal defence lawyers over proposed reforms to the country’s Legal Aid system. The Law Society President, Austin Lafferty, believes that if the cuts go ahead they will ‘still incentivise the innocent accused to plead guilty and leave solicitors as unpaid debt collectors for the government’.
Justice in Austerity: Policy makers, experts and practitioners from EU institutions and national administrations and organisations are due to meet in Brussels this week at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ annual conference. This year the conference will focus on current challenges in accessing justice and explore how the economic ‘crisis’ can be turned into an opportunity for innovation and reform. With key justice players from the UK represented amongst the speakers, it is hoped attendees bring positive lessons about access to justice, home to roost.
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