News Digest for week commencing 27 May 2013, by Emma Walker
QCs ask Government to withdraw ‘unjust proposals’ for legal aid: 89 members of the Queen’s Counsel have called on the Government, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, to withdraw its ‘unjust proposal’ to limit legal aid for people who apply to have a decision made by a public body to be judicially reviewed. In their letter, the leading lawyers warned the Government that its proposed changes will endanger the public’s ‘practical access to justice’ and will ‘immunise government and other public authorities from effective legal challenge’.
The barristers added that ‘abuses by UK agents and officials overseas that hitherto have been subject to the scrutiny of British courts will now in practice attract impunity’. The letter’s authors pointed out that under the Government’s proposals, which include stopping legal aid for non-residents and prisoners who complain about mistreatment whilst in jail, ‘people whose lives are affected by the unlawful action of public bodies will have no option but to try to represent themselves’, adding that ‘effective representation will be one-sided: The government will continue to pay for, and be represented by, specialist lawyers’. The barristers stated that the reforms will ‘drive conscientious and dedicated specialist public law practitioners and firms out of business’, leaving vulnerable people without access to legal advice and representation. ‘The cumulative effect of these proposals’, the lawyers concluded, ‘will seriously undermine the rule of law, and Britain’s global reputation for justice’.
Government risks unlawful consultation due to lack of data on proposed legal aid reforms: In another letter this week, this time to the Ministry of Justice, the Public Law Project has warned that the lack of data underpinning its planned cuts to civil legal aid ‘would render the consultation unlawful’. Writing for PLP, barrister Martha Spurrier, explained the organisation made a freedom of information request at the end of April to help inform its response to the MoJ’s latest consultation on publicly-funded legal advice Transforming legal aid.
Spurrier stated that additional statistics were needed, including information relevant to the proposals to introduce a new residency test for legal aid applicants and in relation to plans to limit legal aid for judicial review applicants. Spurrier added that, bearing in mind that the consultation closes on 4 June, the further information should be published ‘urgently and in any event within 14 days’ and that the deadline for responses to the consultation should be extended. Spurrier said the PLP would wait for the MoJ’s response to the consultation, and if this was unsatisfactory, ‘take urgent advice on whether to make a challenge’.
Ministry of Justice said to be considering privatisation of the courts and their staff: A report in The Times on Tuesday of this week suggested that the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) is contemplating whether to put court buildings and staff ‘in the hands of private companies’, in an effort to cut up to £1bn a year from its budget.
However, whilst the MoJ agreed that it is currently looking at ways in which it could ‘deliver a courts system that is more effective and efficient’, it denied the assertion it is contemplating a ‘wholesale privatisation’. A spokesperson from the Bar Council commented that ‘the administration of justice is essential to our democratic society. It must be properly managed by Government in the public interest, not run by private companies acting in their shareholders’ best interests. Whilst efficiency is important, justice, like health, cannot always be measured simply by cost’. Speaking of the plans, the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling said that he had discussed the ‘ideas in outline with the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals and will continue to work closely with the judiciary as to the detail of these reforms, as well as work with the relevant Parliamentary Committees’.
Will outsourcing giant beat off smaller competitors for criminal legal aid contract if reforms go ahead? On Sunday, the Times reported on rumours that outsourcing giant, SERCO, may bid for one of the Government criminal legal aid contracts, should the proposed price-competitive tendering model be brought in to force.
The Sunday Times described the possible action as a move ‘that could deprive defendants in criminal trials of the right to choose their own lawyers’ and as one that ‘would give the company unprecedented power over Britain’s penal system, from operating prisons and transporting and tagging prisoners to providing solicitors’.
The paper described the Government’s latest proposals as ‘the most wide-ranging reform of the legal aid system in decades and has been designed to save £220m a year’. The report added that in order to make the new contracts profitable, the Ministry of Justice has said it will remove defendants’ automatic right to choose their own solicitors, although they will still be able to select their own barristers. The removal of client choice in instructing a solicitor has prompted widespread criticism across the profession, with commentators pointing out that it is a major factor in promoting standards and its removal will cause a ‘race to the bottom‘ as hopeful tenderers are forced to submit the lowest bids possible to win the coveted criminal legal aid contracts.
BIHR publishes briefing paper to help public lobby against reforms set to reduce access to justice: On Wednesday the British Institute of Human Rights published its briefing paper on the proposed reforms to legal aid, in a bid to help people explain to the Government why legal aid is important for everyone, and not just the legal profession. The BIHR explained that it is important safeguards are in place to enable all people, and not just those who can afford it, to hold public officials to account, to make sure power is not being misused or abused. However, the charity added, the Government’s proposals will reduce access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay for legal advice and representation and will have particular impact on disadvantaged or vulnerable people, despite being the very people at the greatest risk of having their rights violated by a public body that makes an unlawful decisions. The BIHR concludes in its release that accompanies the briefing paper that it is therefore important that as many organisations and individuals as are able, raise their concerns with the government.
‘Moment of unity’ planned to mark the end of the Government’s latest consultation on legal aid: Lawyers across England and Wales are planning a ‘moment of unity’ to mark the end of the Government’s latest consultation on its proposed reforms to legal aid. Solicitors and barristers will pause for a minute of unity at 9.59am on 4 June 2013, before court proceedings commence, to draw attention to the cuts. The action has been instigated by the founder of the Save UK Justice campaign, Rachel Bentley, and is being supported by the Law Society. Advertising the action on the Save UK Justice website, Ms Bentley asks participants to agree on a Court in their area to hold their ‘moment of unity’ on 4 June. The nationwide action aims to draw the public’s attention to the risks inherent in the Government’s proposals. Law Society Chief Executive, Desmond Hudson, said that the ‘one minute of action will draw attention to these government plans which we believe are unworkable, and possibly unlawful’.
Bar Council to hold ‘legal aid Question Time’ to promote debate on Government plans: The Bar Council announced this week that it will host a ‘legal aid Question Time’ in Westminster on Tuesday 18 June 2012, to enable interested individuals and groups to air their views on the proposed changes to legal aid.
The debate will be chaired by legal journalist , Joshua Rozenberg, and will give audience members the opportunity to put questions to the panel members, which are already set to include the Minister of State for Justice, Lord McNally; the Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter MP; and, the Bar Council Chair, Maura McGowan QC. Speaking about the anticipated event, McGowan commented that ‘we must fight for our views to be heard. That is why the Bar Council is hosting this debate’. McGowan added that the discussion ‘will provide the perfect platform to hold the Government to account and hear what the Opposition would do differently’.
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