JusticeWatch: Legal aid at 70

‘A shadow of its former self’
‘Happy birthday legal aid,’ wrote Daniel Newman and Faith Gordon for The Conversation. For 70 years, the people of England and Wales have enjoyed the right to be provided legal assistance at public expense if they cannot afford a lawyer, they wrote.

‘Despite the importance of legal aid as a means to achieve social justice, the scheme is now a shadow of what it was once intended to be,’ the academics continued. ‘Degraded by successive governments, legal aid is increasingly criticised for funding the defence of those seen as not “deserving” it.’

‘Legal aid is a public good and essential for a properly functioning democratic society. This anniversary should be an opportunity to not only celebrate a principle that has the potential to ensure equality before the law, but also cause us to take stock and get angry at how these rights have continued to be stripped away.’
Daniel Newman and Faith Gordon

The Robert Buckland QC has been sworn in as lord chancellor ‘affirming his commitment “as far as possible” to the principle of legal aid’, as the Law Society’s Gazette reported.

Noting the 70th anniversary, he said: ‘Having practised predominantly in cases involving criminal legal aid, I remain firmly of the belief that as far as possible the right support must be provided for those who need it particularly where actions of the state directly affect the liberty, livelihood or welfare of the individual.’

The new justice secretary later suggested that the anonymity of suspected sex offenders and others accused of serious crimes should be respected until they are charged. Buckland was asked if he backed the campaign to ban the naming of those arrested on suspicion of rape and other sexual offences led by Sir Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini.

‘Let’s say you are a reputable local businessperson who is accused of fraud. Your good name is going to be really undermined by this mere accusation. You are a person of good character. That might be a meritorious case for anonymity,’ he told the Times.

Court closures
‘What is known as the most ambitious court reform programme in the world has closed 258 courts across England and Wales,’ wrote Sue James in the Law Society’s Gazette. There are certainly more closures to follow, she argued, ‘without any evidence to date on the impact on access to justice’.

James has been a housing solicitor for more than 20 years and is legal officer at the Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre. ‘I am increasingly seeing tenants walking to court to save their home, as they are without sufficient money to live on let alone pay travel costs. A trip across London may seem short, but a return fare on the tube is £5.80 – that’s a huge amount from a Universal Credit payment,’ she wrote.

Hammersmith Combined Court, a new-build only 11 years old, was sold for £43 million. ‘We don’t yet know its resale value, but it has a planning application pending for a hotel. The resale value on many of the courts has been substantially higher with conversions to hotels, flats and cafes. Developers are making a profit. Could the buildings have been put to better public use? Provided much needed homes?’

Immigration detention
The Home Office said proposals from the Joint Committee on Human Rights to introduce a 28-day limit on detentions would ‘incentivise’ abuse of immigration rules (reported on the Politics Home site). In February, the group had urged ministers to introduce the cap in a bid to end ‘distress and anxiety’ for detainees and to prompt Home Office officials to process cases more quikcly.

In a response to the Committee, the now-former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes said the proposals would put the public ‘at risk’. ‘The Government believes that an immigration detention time limit of 28 days would severely constrain the ability to maintain balanced and effective immigration control, potentially incentivise significant abuse of the system, and put the public at risk,’ she said. ‘Any time limit would require a significant and costly re-engineering of a wide range of cross-government and judicial systems to mitigate these consequences.’

The UK’s most senior judge has appealed for people to give money to a charity whose volunteers support those who become embroiled in civil court cases but cannot afford a lawyer, reported the Guardian.

Passing the bucket
Christopher Stanley wrote for The Justice Gap about lessons from the Birmingham Pub Bombing inquest. The solicitor made  a freedom of information request to Birmingham City Council for a cost breakdown. He found the fees of the solicitors to the inquest were £1,427,180.63 and £869,583.47 counsel plus £202,139.01 for media consultants.

To date his firm (KRW LAW LLP) representing ten of the families has yet to receive payment from the Legal Aid Agency. Its fees for the judicial review were funded by Crowd Justice and ‘by buckets being passed round at football matches’.

‘The effect of attrition on relatives and their lawyers is withering. Unless engaged or effected the public are unaware of this, but the unaccountable state is a dangerous beast and when its acts or omissions result in the death of person… . An imploding Labour Party and a right-shift Conservative Party brings no hope of a seismic shift in this area for the relatives of victims and their beleaguered lawyers.’
Christopher Stanley

Meanwhile Lady Hale asked for donations to the Personal Support Unit on this week’s Radio 4 Appeal. ‘I know how intimidating the civil and family courts can be for people without legal knowledge or help,’ Lady Hale, patron of the Personal Support Unit, told listeners (as reported by the Guardian). ‘Everyone deserves access to justice whether or not they can afford a lawyer.’

Finally, a domestic violence charity has set up an alternative business structure (ABS) to provide legal services for people who are not eligible for legal aid but cannot afford to pay for a private practice solicitor, according to Legal Futures.

Yasmin Khan, chief executive of Staying Put, said the idea was inspired partly by working with litigants in person in the family courts and the aim was to charge 20-30% less than high street lawyers. Khan said Affordable Legal Services @ Staying Put (ALS) was made possible by a grant of £105,000 received last year from the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire.

‘There is nothing for those people who are not eligible for legal aid and would not be able to afford a high street solicitor,’ she said.

Culture of disbelief
Laura Gibbons, a solicitor at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, write about her experience representing age-disputed unaccompanied asylum seeking children for the Justice Gap. A recent BBC Newsnight investigation identified 137 child asylum seekers wrongly classified as adults. In the 12 months up to March 2019, these vulnerable young people ended up in unsupported, often highly inappropriate, adult asylum accommodation until authorities subsequently accepted that they were children.

‘This culture of disbelief and practice of regularly age assessing children is a serious safeguarding risk. It is damaging the lives of already vulnerable and isolated children and missing out on the potential of nurturing some truly remarkable children who are real assets to society.’
Laura Gibbons


Next JusticeWatch Friday, August 23

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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