Weekly round-up: w/c February 25th

News Digest for week commencing 25 February 2013, by Emma Walker

Legal Services Commission publishes updates on crime and civil contracts and new matter starts: The Legal Services Commission (‘LSC’) has published the final version of the 2013 Standard Civil Contract and Category Definitions 2013 on the Justice website, as well as the amended 2010 Standard Civil Contract and the 2010 Standard Crime Contract, the amendments to which will come into effect on 1 April 2013. The contract applies to providers who deliver Legal Aid advice on Actions against the Police; Clinical Negligence; Community Care; Family Mediation; Mental Health; and, Public Law. The LSC has announced that it will e-mail providers with notifications on the new Contract Schedules in the week commencing 4 March 2013 and that they will contain the matter start allocations for 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014.

UK judicial diversity ‘out of step with rest of world’: At the end of last week and following rumours that ministers had asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision not to appoint a woman in its latest recruitment round, the UK’s most senior female judge was reported to have called for greater judicial diversity. Lady Hale, who is the only female judge in the 12-strong Supreme Court panel, is quoted as saying that the UK is ‘out of step with rest of world’ in terms of judicial diversity. Speaking in a lecture on equality in the judiciary last Thursday, Hale said that ‘our equality laws depend upon the proposition that race and sex are not relevant qualifications, or disqualifications, for any job save in very exceptional circumstances’. However, Hale pointed out that with women accounting for only 23% of judges in England and Wales, our jurisdiction is fourth from the bottom in terms of judicial diversity, ‘followed only by Azerbaijan, Scotland and Armenia’. Hale added that the higher up the court system you look, the more male-dominated the bench becomes. In the High Court only 15.5% of judges are women and a mere 4.5% are from an ethnic background; in the Court of Appeal the number of female judges shrinks to 10.5% and not one is from a minority group. Hale admitted to the lecture’s attendees: ‘I, too, used to be sceptical about the argument that women judges were bound to make a difference but I have come to agree with those great women judges who think that sometimes, on occasions, we may do so’.

Number of female applicants for Queen’s Counsel status falls: Reports of reduced diversity within the legal profession continued this week, with news that the number of female lawyers applying for Queen’s Counsel (‘QC’) status has seen a sharp drop against a background of overall decline in applications to the QC appointments’ panel by barristers and solicitors. Of this year’s 84 successful applicants, only 14 were women and just 3 were not white. A total of 26 women applied to become a QC this year, which is down from last year’s total of 40 female applicants. There were, however, more applications from those who declared themselves as coming from an ethnic minority, but the applicants enjoyed a lower success rate than in the previous year, with six applicants gaining QC status last year but only three doing so this year.

Legal aid cuts to impact on low-income families: This week saw more reports up and down the country of the anticipated impact of the legal aid cuts. In Blackpool, family solicitor Christopher Beverley from Blackhurst Budd solicitors told of how the cuts that are coming in on April 1, will mean that families seeking a divorce or court intervention in a private child care matters will no longer be able to access funding currently available through Legal Aid. Beverley explained that ‘this is not good news for the type of population we have in Blackpool… the 2011 census has Blackpool as the divorce capital of the UK’. Beverley added that the ‘cuts to legal aid will have a major impact on the people here’. He continued: ‘people may feel they have to start representing themselves in court, which would cause a massive delay in proceedings which would have to be halted to explain the legal process’. Beverley acknowledged that ‘there are a lot of people for whom going to court can be a very daunting task for them, very often at a time when they are feeling vulnerable anyway’.

Law Centre to cut services due to loss of Legal Aid income: Meanwhile, down South there were reports that Erith-based law centre is cutting its services when the Legal Aid changes take effect in April. From April 1 2013, the Cross Street Law Centre will no longer be offering drop-in advice to people with benefits, debt, housing or employment enquiries. The not-for-profit agency, which currently receives more than half its income from Legal Aid, will be hit by the Government’s decision to withdraw Legal Aid funding for these areas of advice. The Cross Street Law Centre’s, Chief executive, Kathy Smith commented: ‘We are not in plush premises and spend money only on essentials. We cannot trim any more from our budget and some staff are looking at reducing their working hours to help us through’.

Vulnerable people will suffer as a result of advice funding cuts: In the capital, as the Camden Community Law Centre prepares to axe two thirds of its staff, its founding chairman, the eminent human rights lawyer, Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC is said to have expressed his concern that the Law Centre’s reduced service ‘may well mean that many vulnerable people in Camden will suffer. There are really no other adequate sources of free legal help for members of the public. So the choice becomes between private firms of solicitors who are likely to be expensive and not getting help at all’. Camden Community Law Centre has provided free legal advice and representation and to local residents for 40 years. Sir Geoffrey is reported to have said that the reduced service will have a devastating impact on poor and disadvantaged people.

Heroic half dozen cycles from London to Paris to raise awareness of legal aid cuts and cash for FRU: Speaking with his local newspaper at the end of last week, one of the cyclists prepped for the 200-mile cycle was lawyer, Adrian Smith. Smith explained that the aim of the charity bike ride is to help the Free Representation Unit (‘FRU’) carry on its work and to highlight what the legal aid cuts will mean for people. FRU is a charity providing advice, case preparation and advocacy in tribunal cases to people who could not otherwise obtain legal support, for want of personal means or public funding. Smith told the Comet that ‘if people can’t get free legal advice and go unrepresented, they stand a far smaller chance of successfully defending themselves’. In an effort to combat this effect and to support FRU’s work, the team is undertaking the sponsored cycle ride to raise cash donations that will enable FRU to train and support more advocates which, according to the team, ‘would increase the capacity of FRU to help more people’. To support the heroic half dozen, visit their sponsorship page.


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