Weekly round-up, w/c July 22nd

justice2News Digest for week commencing 22 July 2013, by Emma Walker

Lord McNally confronted by Legal Aid recipients who would not qualify if reforms go ahead: On Tuesday, the lawyers behind the Save UK Justice e-petition that led to the House of Commons using one of its backbench debates to consider the Government’s proposed cuts to Legal Aid and prompted Chris Grayling to reconsider the original proposals, went to see Lord McNally, the Minister of State for Justice. With them, they took two recipients of Legal Aid who had prepared letters explaining what it means to have received funding for their cases.

Under the Government’s current proposals to reform Legal Aid, a residence test will be introduced for civil Legal Aid. This means that an asylum seeker whose initial claim has been refused will be unable to get Legal Aid to make a fresh claim for asylum, even if more evidence supporting their claim becomes available. The obvious implication of this is that asylum seekers whose claims are unsuccessful will be returned to countries where they risk being raped, tortured or killed. The proposals also mean that someone who has been recognised as a refugee will be unable to receive legal aid until 12 months after they were granted status. It is unclear how the Government expects refugees to exist in a legal vacuum for 12 months whilst they develop a sufficiently ‘strong connection’ with the UK that will entitle them to receive Legal Aid. The Save UK Justice lawyers reported that Lord McNally had said it had been ‘extremely helpful’ to hear the personal testimony of the Legal Aid recipients. Lord McNally was also said to stress that he wants to make savings to the Legal Aid budget without impacting on the most vulnerable. However, whether a rethink on the Government’s plans to introduce a residence test for civil Legal Aid funding will be implemented in practice, remains to be seen.

Joint Committee on Human Rights seeks evidence on implications of Government’s proposals to reform Legal Aid: On 18 July, the Joint Committee on Human Rights launched its inquiry into the implications for access to justice of some of the Government’s latest proposals to reform Legal Aid. The Committee is seeking evidence from those interested in the human rights issues raised by the proposals: to introduce a residence test for civil Legal Aid claimants, so as to limit legal aid to those with a ‘strong connection’ with the UK; to restrict Legal Aid available to prisoners; that Legal Aid providers are only paid for work for judicial review applications where the Court grants permission for it to proceed; and, to remove Legal Aid for cases seen as having ‘borderline’ prospects of success. The Committee has requested that written evidence on the proposals be submitted by Friday 27 September 2013, as it is expected that public hearings will be held in October 2013. The Committee has written to the Government asking it not to enact any measures that give effect to its proposals on Legal Aid, until such time as the Committee has had an opportunity to report back, following its inquiry. For further details of how to submit evidence on the implications of the proposals, visit the Joint Committee webpage.

Low Commission invites feedback on its emerging recommendations: When the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (‘APG’) next meets, after the summer holidays, it is due to hear from Lord Low of Dalston and will reflect on the preliminary findings of the Low Commission. The Commission, which was set up in December 2012, has been gathering evidence about the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law issues in England and Wales. Lord Low last spoke at an APG meeting on 13 February 2013, as part of this evidence gathering mission. September 2013 will see the Commission publish its draft report, in which it will set out its emerging recommendations. The Commission is keen to glean as many opinions as possible on its proposals and so Lord Low hopes the APG meeting will afford attendees an opportunity to provide a candid and constructive critique of the Commission’s recommendations. To that end, the Commission’s proposals will be made available in advance of September’s meeting. If you wish to attend the next APG meeting, which will take place at 4pm on 3 September 2013 in Committee Room 12 at the House of Commons, you should email conference@lapg.co.uk, quoting ‘APG’ in the subject line.

30 July 2013 – A day of celebration and protest: The week before last I wrote that the Justice Alliance had called for a day of action across England and Wales on Tuesday 30 July 2013, with the aim of celebrating Legal Aid and protesting against the Government’s proposals to further reform the system. With a rally already set to take place outside the Old Bailey in London, Manchester will see a similar celebration and protest take place at 5pm on 30 July 2013, outside Manchester Crown Court. The Manchester-based rally will hear speeches from John Nicholson and Mark George QC and a statement from Michael Mansfield QC. The messages the participants want to convey are that the Government cuts to free advice must be resisted for the sake of small Legal Aid centred firms and because they will reduce funding for criminal defence;  they will stop challenges to unlawful behaviour of the state; prevent prisoners from accessing advice that aids their rehabilitation; introduce a discriminatory residence test and deny justice to asylum seekers and victims of trafficking. Further details of the activities planned for Manchester can be found here.


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