Weekly round-up, w/c June 3

News Digest for week commencing 3 June 2013, by Emma Walker

Society’s most vulnerable will be hardest hit by legal aid cuts: In an article published on the Left Foot Forward website on Monday, Rachel Robinson, a policy officer at Liberty, wrote of the ‘savage attacks’ that continue to impact on the legal system in England and Wales. Robinson argued that the cuts not only mean ‘society’s most vulnerable will be hardest hit’ but that will also ‘severely weaken human rights protections for us all as breaches go unchallenged because victims cannot afford the fight’. Robinson explained that for ‘our rights and freedoms to be meaningful, they have to be practically enforceable’, adding that ‘effective access to justice is a cornerstone of liberal democracy’. Robinson reflected on false economy factor of the cuts due to an inevitable increase in court budgets if litigants are left to navigate the legal system alone. She also suggests that the price competitive model for criminal legal aid contracts put forward by the Government will inevitably lead to a loss of incentive of practitioners to offer an above average service, meaning that ‘standards will inevitably plummet’. Robinson rounds off by saying that ‘this botched attempt to get justice on the cheap would put justice out of reach for all but the most powerful’.

Grayling: do you want your health or your rights? On Tuesday the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, marked the end of the Government’s latest consultation on legal aid reform by accusing lawyers of making ‘over the top’ claims about the expected impact of the cuts. The Justice Secretary said lawyers have been ‘in overdrive’ over his plans to cut £220 million from criminal Legal Aid, by making a series of unjustified and inaccurate allegations about the proposed reforms. Grayling warned that Legal Aid spending will have to come down further still if NHS budgets are to be maintained. He added that ‘Government is about priorities… Do people really want us to cut health budgets rather than work to create a more efficient legal system?’ Grayling said that claims the proposed means test will rule out Legal Aid for those with an annual income of £37,500 are wrong because this does not account for the fact the threshold refers to net income, which translates to actual yearly earnings of about £100,000.

‘Stop the raid on Legal Aid’: Lawyers took to the streets on Tuesday evening in a protest staged outside the Ministry of Justice to coincide with the closure of its latest consultation on cuts to Legal Aid. Several hundred lawyers blocked the road outside the department’s entrance as they congregated to chants of ‘No legal aid! No justice!’ and ‘Stop the raid on legal aid’.

Speakers at the protest included representatives from human rights charities, Liberty, Reprieve and Kids Company, as well as number of high-profile barristers. Michael Mansfield QC said of the protest: ‘None of this is primarily about lawyers, although they are affected. It is about a basic provision, justice, the very substance of what is left of our democracy. No fundamental rights are worth the paper they are written upon unless they can be enforced, especially against overweening and corruptive authorities. There has been, with small exceptions, an intransigence and almost dismissive contempt by government towards the plight of the citizen‘. Submissions to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation were published over the course of the final day of the consultation period, with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law saying the plans would result in the ‘absurd prospect‘ of repeat offenders being represented by different law firms and the reduction of legal advice to ‘the status of a commodity‘. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, has defended the proposals saying that the ‘changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer, and will not in any way affect someone’s right to a fair trial‘. Conversely, the Citizens Advice Bureau has said the latest round of cuts could be ‘the straw that breaks the back of universal justice‘.

Bar Council willing to engage legal aid review but will not help ‘wreck the criminal justice system’: On Wednesday the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) released figures on the biggest earners from Legal Aid contracts, with London firm Duncan Lewis coming out as having billed £14.6m in civil Legal Aid costs in 2011/12. That same day, the Bar Council announced that it has ‘no plans to develop a quality system to facilitate price competitive tendering (PCT) for criminal legal aid‘.

Bar Council chair, Maura McGowan QC, was quoted as saying: ‘The Bar has no plans to develop a scheme which will wreck the criminal justice system and drive over a thousand solicitors’ firms out of business. Once again, the Ministry of Justice is relying on out-of-date figures to support an argument which it is losing. Legal aid lawyers, who are highly skilled and trained advocates who work hard in the public interest, often earn no more than teachers or other public service providers. The public will not be fooled into thinking that changes which threaten their basic freedoms and the Rule of Law can be justified on that basis. Attempts to argue otherwise by perpetuating false stereotypes are frankly dangerous and wrong. We are, and always have been, open to engaging in a thorough review of the legal aid system and to working with the Government to reform the scheme to ensure it works in the public interest. Instead, we are being asked to make piecemeal additions to an unworkable model.’

Government’s own Counsel voices concerns over creation of underclass if proposed cuts to legal aid go ahead: The Government’s litigation advisors, the Treasury Counsel, have this week also entered into the debate over the latest Legal Aid proposals, in cautioning that the proposed changes to the Judicial Review system will leave public bodies unaccountable to the public. In an open letter to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve MP, barristers from the Attorney General’s panels wrote that ‘Judicial review is important, not because such individuals have more rights, but because they have fewer. To deny legal aid altogether to such persons, so that even the minimal rights provided to them by the law cannot be enforced, is in our view unconscionable‘. The barristers added: ‘by ensuring that officials are accountable to the law, judicial review provides a powerful corrective to poor decision making, the importance of which goes well beyond the relatively small number of cases which get near a court‘. The Treasury Counsel barristers said they had particular concerns about the Government’s proposals to introduce a residency test to limit access to civil Legal Aid, explaining that ‘this risks creating an underclass of persons within the UK for whom access to the courts is impossible‘.

Government’s reckless pursuit of economy is imperilling British justice – According to the FT this week, the Judiciary has responded to the Government’s proposed reforms to Legal Aid in protest, saying that the Government’s reckless pursuit of economy is imperilling British justice. The report’s author argues that perverse incentives should not be used to drive costs down. The article states that problems will arise if the Government is able to put Legal Aid contracts out to tender, whilst simultaneously harmonising fees for cases irrespective of whether clients plead guilty or not on the basis that Court costs would be lower if a defendant admits guilt from the get-go. Together these dual changes prove problematic because if Legal Aid contracts going to the lowest bidders, firms may become motivated to advise clients to lodge guilty pleas for reasons of cost-efficiency. The FT finishes its piece off by pointing out that ‘savings should be accompanied by safeguards on quality and access to justice. Otherwise there is a risk that reform will trade a marginal fiscal benefit for democratic deficit’.

Howard League to hold conference to stimulate debate and synthesis ideas on the penal system: The Howard League for Penal Reform is organising an international conference to stimulate intellectual debate to challenge the conventional role of the penal system. The conference, which is to be held at Keble College, Oxford, in October 2013, will synthesise strategies on how the penal system can minimise its role whilst continuing to promote public confidence, fewer victims of crime and enable safer communities. The tow-day conference will be comprised of talks from keynote speakers that will provide attendees with chances to pose questions and spark debate on the conferences themes, which include local justice and participation, social justice, human rights and the role of the state. Further details of the conference can be found on the Howard League for Penal Reform’s website.

 

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