Weekly round-up: w/c February 11th

News Digest for week commencing 11 February 2013, by Emma Walker

Legal Services Commission agrees to drop controversial contract changes: Following talks with the Law Society, the Legal Services Commission (‘LSC’) has agreed to drop controversial changes to existing legal aid contracts.  A Law Society spokeswoman said that ‘following constructive discussions with the LSC, three of the controversial changes proposed are not going ahead at this time, and an acceptable compromise has been reached on the fourth’.  The changes were to give the LSC powers to alter criminal contracts in response to changes to prosecution procedures, restrict the ability of firms to pay bills by instalments, amend a disclosure provision giving the LSC the right to disclose information to allow it to assert that firms consent to the disclosure of contract details and the power to remove firms’ abilities to undertake limited amounts of Legal Help work in areas outside those where they have a contract.

Cuts to cause radical changes to advice sector: Last week we highlighted the warnings of the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter’s, chief executive Campbell Robb that 10 of the charity’s advice services may be forced to close once the cuts to Legal Aid take effect, post-LASPO.  This week third sector commentators have been discussing comments by the Low Commission, the independent body set up to analyse the future of welfare advice and support, that of the 270 voluntary sector organisations that received Legal Aid funding last year as few as a ‘couple of dozen’ could survive the impending cuts. Steve Hynes, director of Legal Action Group, says that all 60 of the UK’s law centres will be affected by the cuts.  In addition, about 180 Citizens Advice Bureaux and a small number of other advice charities are likely to receive less funding.  The Commission’s Secretary, Richard Gutch, says that legal aid cuts coupled with significant cuts in local authority grants mean charities will have a fraction of funding they had before.  Gutch reports that the cuts will result in a ‘radically changed’ sector that will have to find different sources of funding.  Gutch predicts that organisations will have to ‘look at whether they can sell services’.  Meanwhile the Commission will be looking ‘at ways to reduce the need for advice’, Gutch confirmed.

Legal services sector in flux: At the end of last week, The Guardian ran a comparative article between two solicitors, both with 4 PQE but one who worked at a Magic Circle firm in the City and another who worked at a Legal Aid law firm in Sheffield.  Speaking of her work, young Legal Aid lawyer, Carita Thomas, commented: ‘I can’t think of a better job to do than this… these are massive issues in these people’s lives’.  However, Thomas believes there will soon be fewer opportunities for individuals entering the profession.  Thomas’ view is that ‘we are going to lose a lot of talent from the legal aid field and I question whether we will ever get it back’.  Speaking of the British legal market, the Justice Minister, Lord McNally, is reported to have said that ’the UK is a world leader in the provision of legal services and we must all work hard to maintain that enviable status…However, as well as celebrating its great achievements we also need to control costs’.  Turning to reform Lord McNally stated that ‘Our reforms will target legal aid at those who need it most to get best value for the taxpayer, and changing no-win no-fee deals will drive costs down for consumers. Legal services is a sector in flux and will need adaptability and flexibility to continue to prosper’.

MoJ gives guidance on future of civil justice: On Wednesday the Ministry of Justice set out how the Jackson reforms coming into effect in April, will work.  The Civil Procedure (Amendment) Rules laid down in Parliament will dictate the direction of civil justice.  Craig Budsworth, the chair of the Motor Accident Solicitors’ Society, commented that it was of note that the 10% rise in damages promised as part of the Jackson changes did not form part of the rules.  He added that the judicial guidelines would have to be amended to ensure protection for accident victims and remarked on the importance of ensuring ‘the whole package of Jackson reforms is implemented and there is that vital balance between the claimant and defendant in the system’.

Government adamant that Closed Material Procedures necessary: Facing intense questioning from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has argued that the Government’s recent rejection of amendments introduced to the Justice and Security Bill by the House of Lords were necessary.  The Government insists that proposals for Closed Material Procedures are necessary because it has been forced to abandon cases and pay out compensation in the past, due to the fact that it could not introduce sensitive information from intelligence sources.  Human Rights campaigners have warned that if ministers get their way then secret material, which will not even be disclosed an opponent, would be used to defend serious allegations.  Clarke continues to face claims that his proposals would undermine ‘the primacy of open justice’.  The Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter, says of his opponent: ‘Ken Clarke still does not understand the inherent unfairness of one side having all the facts to argue and not the other side. This is fundamentally undermining English law’.

Coroners no longer limited to holding inquests in own district: An amendment to the Coroners Act 1988 put in place by the Justice Minister, Helen Grant, means that coroners will no longer be limited to holding inquests in their own district but will instead be able to hold inquests at different locations in England and Wales, if it is in the best interest of the bereaved family or other individuals, including witnesses.  The change forms part of a series of reforms intended to create a coroner system that puts the needs of bereaved families at the heart of the process whilst adhering to consistently high standards.

Government’s employment strategy undermined: following judgment that work-for-benefit schemes providing a lack of basic information to the unemployed are unlawful.  The Court of Appeal accepted the need for a policy imposing requirements on persons receiving a substantial weekly sum, but held that the schemes subject to the appeal did not, in the words of the Jobseekers Act 1995, ‘assist [claimants] to obtain employment’ or improve ‘their prospects of obtaining employment’ and were therefore unlawful.  The court ruling means tens of thousands of unemployed people who have been sanctioned under such schemes are entitled to a rebate of the sums of money charged to them as penalties.  The Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed it will not be paying out such sums until ‘all legal avenues had been exhausted’.  On Tuesday fresh regulations were issued that complied with the Court of Appeal’s judgment and although the Government was refused leave to appeal, the Department for Work and Pensions has said it will take the matter to the Supreme Court.  (For further reading, see here)

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