Guest Blogpost by Greg Powell: A brief history of legal aid

I am delighted to publish this guest blogpost by Greg Powell of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA). There is presently a lot of discussion in the media about legal aid, and in particular the rates paid to lawyers under legal aid. This analysis is vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are, and is essential reading for anybody reporting or commenting on the dispute between criminal justice professionals and the government concerning legal aid.

 

  1. The Expansion of Legal Aid

1.1      In the 1970s and 80s there was a large expansion of Legal Aid which was at that time essentially an adjunct to the other work of solicitors firms, there being some 7000 suppliers, Legal Aid work sitting alongside normal commercial work like conveyancing, probate and contract.

1.2      Administered by the Law Society the hourly rates were not as high as those prevailing in the private client and commercial world but nevertheless were related to the cost of time.

1.3      The cost of time was calculated by assigning a target for chargeable hours for each fee earner, usually 1200 hours per annum, a notional salary for solicitors and partners and dividing overheads by the numbers of fee earners to find out applicable hourly rates.

1.4      Provision was made for lower hourly rates for travel and waiting, a problem that has always been apparent in legal aid work which is often not office based but court based, and in the case of crime, prison and police station based, with the consequence that large parts of chargeable hours were consumed in lower paid hourly rates. Fixed fee schemes containing ‘rolled up’ time spent travelling and waiting ‘hide’ the true costs of cases within their simplicity.

1.5      However, in terms of cost benefit it is also to be noted that the organisation of courts and the interaction of advocates and the tribunal and particularly the flow of work provided by ushers in Magistrates Courts is highly efficient; face to face interactions provide courts with good quality information upon which to base decisions.

 

  1. A Changing Supplier Base

2.1      As Legal Aid expanded the Law Society administration was unable to cope. Delay in payment became a well-known public fact and eventually the decision was made to move the administration of Legal Aid away from the Law Society into the hands of an independent Legal Aid Board. This was at inception essentially a cashier organisation but it also had within it a desire to promote and implement policy.

2.2      What had also happened is that a number of more specialist Legal Aid suppliers had come into being whose main purpose was to provide Legal Aid services in the community, usually both civil and crime covering the full range of civil, family law, welfare benefits, housing, mental health and immigration. In essence a numerous and independent “legally aided” sector was a by-product of the expansion of funding and scope.

2.3      It had been, and remains, a major component of this system that the supplier base provides its own capital in order to set up organisations, provide premises and employ people.  In this sense it is a free market where entrepreneurs have invested their own capital identifying gaps in the market and establishing businesses.

2.4      There were parallel changes in the private solicitor marketplace as conveyancing lost its fixed fee structures and in the more successful private client firms partners often became dissatisfied with low hourly rates of return in legal aid work and began shedding that work, a process accelerated from the 1990s as Legal Aid rates became frozen and eroded by inflation. Lord MacKay decided to abolish his Legal Aid Advisory Committee.  The current panel constituted to assist in the review of criminal Legal Aid is a distant echo of that forerunner.

 

  1. The Rise of Contracting

3.1      The Legal Aid Board brought forward the idea that suppliers would be contracted to supply Legal Aid services coupled to the idea of a quality mark. This had some basis in academic research (see the book, Standing Accused by McConville and Others which lamented poor standards in criminal work).

3.2      Other major structural developments were the establishing of the Crown Prosecution Service following major public scandals involving forced confessions by police officers and also the technological development of tape recording which allowed a new mode for conducting interviews.  The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act also introduced the idea of the delivery of rights by independent Custody Officers whilst extending police powers.  One particularly significant development was the decision to allow the police 24 hours in which to detain a person before charge.  This was fiercely debated with 12 hours as a viable alternative but this was rejected and 24 hours underpins the subsequent development of a lackadaisical approach to the investigation whilst the person is in custody. Providing access to legal advice in the Police Station was a major costs driver.

3.3      Initially contracting was to be voluntary and was expressly said not to be a policy which would become compulsory.  Of course it did and very unfortunately contracting become a major dividing factor, there being separate crime and civil contracts.  This rupture of services had profound consequences on the market causing firms to choose between spheres and although many continue to operate both there was also a large bureaucratic burden.  That burden was another factor in private client firms continuing to abandon Legal Aid services.

 

  1. A Rich Ecology

4.1      What the entrepreneurial activity had created, in the context of the expansion of Legal Aid to meet need, was a rich fabric of firms and services. We have sometimes likened this to the ecology of a rainforest, diverse, valuable and especially establishing in local communities a variety of client choice and a feeling amongst clients, usually poorer and working class, that they had access to justice through “their” solicitor.

 

  1. Reform and the Market

5.1      The foundation of reform was a myth, that Legal Aid expenditure was “out of control” accompanied by a sinister subtext that the forces driving expenditure were the supplier base improperly exploiting Legal Aid. Academic research showed that the driving factor was in fact the rise in need and volume of cases and a tsunami of legislation, especially in crime.  Nevertheless this myth took hold.

5.2      The Paradox in the early 2000s was that the government was substantially investing in workers compensation schemes and rightly so, but whilst it spent billions on the one hand in those schemes it sought to cut Legal Aid expenditure by millions on the other.

5.3      Lord Carter proposed a crude simplistic trade off of volume for price a theme that has bedevilled so called “reform” ever since and dominated proposals for change.

5.4      The proposals that came forward were administratively complex and essentially foundered as they were unable to resolve contradictions between rewarding incumbent suppliers with market share and providing opportunities for new entrants, whilst also hopelessly confusing the nature of the market with other markets where there are multiple opportunities for suppliers to bid for work.

5.5      This is worth spelling out.  The Ministry of Justice is a single purchaser of Legal Aid services.  It sets prices.  The suppliers when they bid for work (however defined) face an existential crisis.  If their bid fails then they are out of business.  There is no alternative place for them to bid.

5.6      In other words this Legal Aid market for services is not like, for example, the NHS, which procures across a vast organisation for multiple services offering bidders the opportunities to bid for difference sizes of contract in different geographical areas in circumstances where, therefore, the failure of a bid is not terminal to their business.

5.7      It was an historic strength of the system that it was open. In other words there were no limits on the number of contractors and sufficient prices allowed a degree of entrepreneurial activity to fill in gaps in the market place. As prices have declined so has that activity.  However there are two other benefits from the way in which this market has operated.

5.8      A key element to successful entrepreneurial activity has been establishing reputation and this has been driven by the other key element of client choice.  The introduction of the Duty Solicitor Schemes enabled firms to source a more “captive” work stream and gain clients through duty solicitor activity in courts and police stations. Nevertheless it still remained and remains an important element for all firms that the quality of what they do is sufficient to draw that client back to them or achieve word of mouth referrals. In this way client choice drives quality.

5.9      Unfortunately restrictions on the ability to transfer Representation Orders have led to a decline in consumer/client choice.  There is a consumer paradox for people who are initially arrested, represented by a duty solicitor and bailed or released under investigation.  At that stage, pre-charge, there is no Legal Aid available and they are actually free to make enquiries in the marketplace to find out if the solicitor they have accessed accidentally as the duty solicitor is the person best placed to represent them or whether they could find an alternative with better reputation. In this way consumers are free to move around within the market.

5.10    However, if for example, a person is arrestedfor murder, has a duty solicitor and is remanded in custodythey then find it very difficult to change due to the rules which to this degree undermine an aspect of client choice.

5.11    Contracting has also restricted the market by restricting the opportunities for new entrants to the start of each contract cycle as well as being a system which has severed civil and criminal services. The most startling reform that could be contemplated would be ending contracting completely.  This would be a return to a pre-contracting era where all firms needed to do was to keep within the rules in respect of claims and payments.  In other words that the work was properly done and claimed.  Such a more open system would certainly allow new entrants and with other incentives and structural changes, allow firms to re-establish mixed practices of civil and crime and provide more local integrated services needed to meet the vast unmet need.

5.12    It is not difficult to be imaginative about what is possible in the Legal Aid market.  The Legal Services Commission as the successor to the Legal Aid Board had a worthwhile initiative through which firms took on trainees who were subsidised directly by the LSC in return for a contractual commitment to stay in Legal Aid work for a period of time.

5.13    Legal Aid as a bespoke subject ought to be an option within law school courses and participation can be leveraged through grant, the relief of debt and payments to suppliers to provide subsequent training contracts.

 

  1. AFundamental Problem

6.1      Underpinning access to justice are the rights to a fair trial and equality of arms between the parties.  Crucial is the adversarial system working properly to ensure that the court has before it all admissible evidence in order that the fundamental objective, which is the pursuit of truth, is achieved.

6.2      No one is facing up to the work, time and costs issues posed by the explosion of electronic material.   It simply means that in cases where it is relevant (and there is often a contest about what is and what is not properly served as evidence or unused material) the evidence has got be examined and deployed by prosecution and defence.  These are tasks which have made the process of litigation more time intensive and more costly.  This is for the police as investigators, the prosecution as an independent prosecutorial body assessing the evidence and for the defendants. All require extra resources in the long term in a degree of magnitude to properly cope with the technological development.  There is no shortcut and it simply requires more money and acceptance that this will be a demand led system that cannot be contained with fixed “envelopes” of cost.

 

  1. The Erosion of Value

7.1      The above argument in relation to the explosion of electronic material forms a context for the major other issue which has been the erosion of value.  It is not possible for solicitors and counsel to continue negotiating around the same envelope of money being deployed for cases in new ways.  Inventing other proxies for value or combining proxies with time or combining other structures of payment such as standard fees, non-standard fees, higher-standard fees still has to account for both the explosion in evidence and the fact that current values have been eroded to a degree where the work is unsustainable.

7.2      That unsustainability is evidenced by the recruitment and retention crisis within solicitors firms conducting criminal work.  It is also evidenced by the almost complete separation of private client work and Legal Aid work within the solicitor’s profession and by the advancing age of the cohort of duty solicitors.

7.3      Research might also reveal a very similar pattern in relation to the ages of partners or directors of firms within the supplier base which is also similarly advancing. Career opportunities have been truncated by the short horizon of business, the uncertainty of profits and the lack of career paths.

7.4      One way of exiting is to the Crown Prosecution Service which now offers substantially better terms than are available generally within the defence community.  Another way of exiting is to simply abandon the work and take up different careers. For students with vast debt Legal Aid is deeply unattractive.

 

  1. Access toJustice

8.1      It was a by-product of the expansion of Legal Aid and the availability of firms within communities providing a range of legally aided services that many millions of people could buy into the ideathat there was a degree of access to justice.

8.2      Much is written about alienation, voices not being heard, and the unrepresentative nature of politics, inequality and the socially excluded. Legal Aid cuts, in particular LASPO, have formed a backdrop which has accentuated exclusion.

8.3      Exclusion also has direct economic consequences.  A family with less income because they are unable to challenge welfare benefit decisions live in greater poverty.  Children in greater poverty   are more likely to fail in the education system, often being excluded, more vulnerable to drift into gangs, crime and county lines drug dealing. Similarly challenging are living in conditions of disrepair, losing housing and the gross disruption of family life where there are cycles of imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and devastating adverse immigration decisions and deportation.  Many live and are brought up in deeply hostile environments and too often the inability of fathers to access contact and maintain parenting has potentially disastrous consequences.

8.4      Add to these other factors such as loss of youth clubs, social workers, and the pressure of schools to exclude pupils.  It is no wonder that the world of gang affiliation with its sense of identity and drug dealing giving access to otherwise unattainable riches is such a lure to young people and indeed older people involved in organised crime.

8.5      The extent of organised crime has been highlighted by the National Crime Agency in its bid for between £2-3billion to combat what it describes as a major threat to security and wellbeing.  Will that funding and these initiatives drive more cases into the Criminal Justice System?  The idea that more cases will arise which demand more resources stands in stark contrast to falling volume as a result of the debacle of the RUI stance adopted by many police forces in relation to the many thousands of people arrested.

8.6      What all of this means, including the review itself, is an extremely unstable environment for Legal Aid practitioners. Low margins make firms highly vulnerable to changes in case volume and case mix.  A two year “review” is irrelevant to the immediate crisis.    What is required is at least a short term injection of funds, the making good of the last 8.75% cut which was predicated on the manipulation of the supplier base producing fewer suppliers with higher volumes, which never took place, and which was in itself arbitrary and unfair.  What is also needed however are not only higher levels of remuneration, but an imaginative reworking of incentives and structure to support an independent legal profession and a degree of stability which would allow businesses to flourish whilst meeting need.

 

  1. London and its Hinterland

9.1      At over 650 square miles with the largest concentration of population in the country London poses particular problems for Legal Aid lawyers.

9.1      It is an area of higher cost. Those costs relate to the costs of business premises, higher wages and higher costs for employees for accommodation and travel.  In a recent Reed Business Support Salary Guide for 2019 an Office Manager in London is said to command a wage of £40,100.  In the East Midlands the figure £23,700 and the North East £29,200 and the North West £23,900.  In the South West and Wales the figure falls to £22,300.

9.3      Traditionally the particular costs base of London were recognised by additional London Weighting supplements on hourly rates.  There is a powerful case for the reintroduction of London Weighting within any newly devised scheme.

9.4      Another myth is that there was an oversupply of firms in London. This is not true and the number of firms is proportionate to the population.  This was established in passing by the KPMG report in the failed debacle of tendering Duty Solicitor Schemes.

9.5      London is the centre of political protest and government and inevitably public protest type crime tends to arise more often and so does financial crime attached to London being the centre of financial services.

9.6      A fundamental problems for practitioners has been the complete absence of planning.  There is no court near a police station which is near a prison, they are spread haphazardly. The system has developed without the slightest regard for efficiencies that might arise from locating services together.  Indeed plans to relocate remand prisoners only in Wandsworth, Belmarsh and Highdown, which is actually outside London in Sutton, would only exacerbate the problems.

9.7      Very large distances must now be traversed across London for defendants, ‘victims’ and witnesses and indeed all the participants in the court process.

9.8      The idea has been advanced frequently by the LCCSA for over a decade that there ought to be reform of the Duty Solicitor Scheme.  At present solicitors join two courtschemes plus associated youth court schemes but are allocated to as many as eight or nine 24 hour police station schemes depending on the location of their office.  This thins volume in any particular court.  Bringing the schemes into line so that solicitors are allocated two or three police stations schemes most contiguous to their office and the court schemes ought to produce a greater volume of work for firms in their local courts.

9.9      Incidentally scheme inflation, by which many more people joined each individual scheme, was a product of a policy decision by the LSC to automatically allocate all qualifying solicitors, depending on the whereabouts of their office to every scheme that was available.

 

  1. Opportunity or Threat? The Criminal Legal Aid Fee Review

10.1    The immediate impulse for the review was the promise to the Bar to review the AGFS arrangements.  That promise was then conflated with the existing idea of a review of the LGFS (no doubt more urgent from the perspective of the MOJ after the successful JR of their plan to cut £30M or so from the LGFS Scheme) and then in turn extended to encompass all fee schemes, police stations, magistrates’ courts and the VHCC scheme.

10.2    Three elements dominate legal aid fees for the last twenty five years. The erosion of fee structures by inflation.  The endless cuts to EVERY fee scheme. The hugely bureaucratic, unmanageable and failed ‘reform’ proposals encompassing Best Value Tendering, Price Competitive Tendering and 2 tier contracting of duty solicitors schemes and other similar debacles including VHCC and family contracts. The 2 Tier debacle was accompanied by a completely arbitrary 17.5% cut in fees.  What is extraordinary is the sheer scale of that cut; 17.5%, not 1.5 or 2% but this huge figure.  Subsequently 8.75% was restored after the failure of the scheme, still leaving practitioners with a completely arbitrary 8.75% cut.

10.3    The common theme has been an approach to Legal Aid as a ‘market’ (fundamentally misunderstood, see para 5.) to be manipulated with the sole objective of driving down price (cuts) encouraged by overtures from a handful of ‘larger’ suppliers who sought greater volume and market share.  In civil the hatchet of LASPO simply removed access to justice for millions of people and further disrupted and eroded the supplier base. .

10.4    What has been absent is any coherent view of Legal Aid based on principles of fair trial, equality of arms or access to justice through increasing the resource that enables people to believe they have the means (legally aided lawyers) to pursue their rights, that their stake in society and belief in its fairness, in the application of the rule of law to them, has meaning because they can rebalance the unfair advantage of ‘others’ who have the power (landlords, Councils, the DWP, insurance companies, the Home Office, Police) by instructing ‘their’ lawyer. This is the real context of rearranging fee structures; it is not an end in itself but only one component of policy that ought to have this enabling outcome. This Review perpetuates the division of crime and civil being confined to criminal Legal Aid fees when the reality is that legal aid services are accessed across lifetimes in multiple ways as need overlaps the civil and criminal boundaries.

10.5    That vision is entirely absent from this Review which is framed as the ‘right time to think more widely about the future of criminal legal aid schemes’, without any commitment to any funding increase, only to the ‘right level’ of legal aid provision. It is most likely to be a missed opportunity and actually another ‘cut’.  The ravaging of value by inflation will not be addressed by a permanent compensatory mechanism, and any ‘ambitious’  attempt to manipulate the market will yet again misread its reality and lead to JR and debacle.  Is this to be a moment (actually a year or two with continuing ministerial reshuffles) for reinvigorating access to justice (restoring the £1 billion about 1/800thof government expenditure) or another episode in the erosion of Legal Aid and its supplier base?

10.6    In the period 2004/2005 to 2019 Government Expenditure rose from around £400 billion to over £800 billion.  In that period removing £1 billion from Legal Aid was a political choice.  The courageous and correct political choice would be to restore access to justice by expanding the Legal Aid spend by £1 billion.

10.7    The complete absence of a commitment to restore funding levels and the absence of vision are depressing.  There is little to indicate that the trajectory of the history of Legal Aid will change.  Rather that the reality that will emerge will remain one of cuts, loss of services and more people who believe that justice is not to be found within the society in which they live.

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Shamima Begum may not deserve your sympathy, but she is entitled to legal aid

Another weekend, another flurry of anti-legal aid stories finding their way into the tabloids. On the criminal legal aid front, The Mirror splashed outrage at the notion of Andrew Hill, the pilot acquitted of manslaughter following the Shoreham Airshow tragedy, “getting” legal aid to mount his successful defence at his criminal trial last year.

It’s one thing when The Mirror – a market leader in legal aid trash news – whips its readers into uninformed apoplexy over criminal legal aid being granted to those who are, after a fair trial only possible because of legal aid, convicted. But it breaks bold new ground even for this organ to resent legal aid being granted to a man whom a jury has found to be not guilty.

Then this morning, the Daily Mail, in a headline which may stand out as the apotheosis of journalistic legal ignorance, announced:

“Shamima Begum is on legal aid despite being stripped of UK citizenship”.

In much the same way that the people I prosecute and defend are granted legal aid despite being accused of criminal offences. Or diabetes patients are treated on the NHS despite having diabetes.

Shamima Begum is, of course, the tabloid ghoul du jour. A 15-year-old Bethnal Green schoolgirl fleeing her home country to join a terror cult abroad, and, four years later, intending to swan back in as if nothing had happened, is the stuff of a red top news editor’s wettest dreams. In February, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, in apparent defiance of his own Home Office advice and with a Fleabag smirk to the cameras, took the decision to revoke Ms Begum’s British citizenship. She is now appealing the Home Secretary’s decision to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission  and is likely to be eligible for legal aid.

Today’s Mail “scoop” follows allegations in The Telegraph that Ms Begum, while an “ISIS bride” in Syria, served as an enforcer in the “morality police” and sewed suicide vests onto her fellow jihadis, playing a far more active role in the group’s activities than she had previously suggested. The veracity of these reports is unclear, but let’s take as face value that they are correct, and that she was not merely a stay-at-home ISIS bride, but an enthusiastic accessory to the most appalling crimes against humanity.

Would this make her despicable? Yes. Meritorious of opprobrium, disgust, contempt and fury? Yup. A criminal? Among the very worst. Deserving of legal aid? Without a shadow of a doubt.

We’ve trodden these boards a thousand times before, but as the basics are yet to be learned by those with the biggest megaphones, they need repeating.

Everybody – no matter what they have done or are alleged to have done – is entitled to equal treatment before the law. That is the building block not only of the rule of law, but of our entire democracy. You don’t earn equal treatment, or qualify for it through good behaviour. It applies universally. The day we start making exceptions for the people who offend us the most is the day our civilisation crumbles.

Everybody is also entitled to a fair hearing where a legal decision has been taken which affects them. The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen You have no right to exist within our borders – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power; the rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.

In this case, while there will be a lot of material to which the public will never have access upon which the government will rely, there are obvious concerns on the face of what we do know. International law prohibits domestic governments from rendering citizens stateless. Ms Begum is a British national born and bred; the Home Secretary is relying on her supposed eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship (through her parents) to comply with international law. Bangladesh is a country which Ms Begum has never visited and which, for what it is worth, has publicly rejected the notion that she would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship.

It is far from certain that the Home Secretary has acted lawfully. It is obviously vital to establish that he has. This can only properly be done at a fair independent hearing at which the legal and factual arguments for and against are fully and competently presented. The Home Office will not spare any expense in instructing counsel to fight its corner (Theresa May was a fan of instructing multiple QCs for single cases to try to give herself an advantage). Equality of arms, another basic principle of the rule of law, requires that the citizen, Shamima Begum, be competently represented. As she is currently unable to pay for her own lawyers, lying destitute in a Syrian refugee camp, she will need to rely upon legal aid. Without legal aid, the case will not be properly argued; indeed, as she is currently banned from entering the country, without representation it will not be argued at all.

The benefits of the case being argued and a judgment being given flow not only to Shamima Begum, but to all of us. This is not merely a private matter of concern to her; all of us live under the law, and all of us need to know that our government is acting lawfully. Moreover, there will be many more cases of this type over the coming years. This decision could ultimately set a precedent, making clear the circumstances in which the government can revoke British citizenship from British-born citizens. Such a precedent is of value to all of us. Because while today, it’s Sajid Javid making a decision affecting Shamima Begum, tomorrow it could be a different Home Secretary making a decision affecting you, or someone you love. And while you may not care what happens to Shamima Begum, you will sure as heck want the law to be fairly applied to you. And this is the point about the law: it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A decision affecting one of us affects us all. We all have a shared interest in ensuring that the law works as it should. As Lord Reed said in a famous Supreme Court decision:

At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

Shamima Begum herself, of course, will not receive a penny of taxypayers’ money. Legal aid is claimed from the Legal Aid Agency directly by her lawyers. A grant of legal aid is also not a bottomless pit, despite what the tabloids falsely claim. It is paid at fixed rates set by government, far below market value – and usually far below what the state pays its own lawyers. And it is designed, like the NHS, to ensure that all of us have our basic rights and dignity respected, whatever we have done. We do not withhold publicly-funded medical treatment for criminals, terrorists or other social undesirables; we recognise that to do so would be barbaric, the mark of a country that has badly lost its way.

So when the Mail invites its readers to fulminate and howl and ask Why should the public pay for this awful woman’s legal aid?, the answer that should be given – by our Lord Chancellor, preferably, as the person with the statutory obligation to uphold the rule of law – is because that is the price of living under the rule of law. If you’d rather exist in a society where the rules are not applied equally, where your entitlement to a fair trial is dependent on the whims of government officials or the roar of the effigy-burning mob or the deepness of your pockets, there are plenty of countries out there willing to oblige.

 

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UPDATE: A common response to this story today has been from people who, understandably, feel aggrieved that more attractive (or “deserving”) causes than Shamima Begum were denied legal aid. Inquests are a particular area where legal aid has been refused for bereaved families, but the non-availability of legal aid stretches across the justice system, from the family courts to employment law to housing to welfare to personal injury to crime to immigration and so on. Many, many people have been denied justice due to refusal of legal aid. But to attack the granting of legal aid to Shamima Begum is, with respect, to miss the point. The scandal is not that Shamima Begum is eligible for legal aid in complex legal proceedings carrying life-changing consequences, but that so many other people have had legal aid refused and removed as part of the appalling attacks on legal aid that successive governments have wrought. It is not party political – all three main parties in government have fed the lies about legal aid to the press and public that have purchased political cover for them to obliterate legal aid and prevent ordinary people from accessing justice. In the 1980s, 79 per cent of the population was eligible for legal aid. By 2015, this had plummeted to 25 per cent. Public anger should be directed at the politicians who have convinced us that cutting legal aid is a good thing, not the few people who are still able to access justice.

Without legal aid, the rule of law collapses

The Guardian is currently running a brilliant series on the effect of the legal aid cuts turbo-charged by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Owen Bowcott and Amelia Hill have put together an in-depth investigation drawing on case studies and interviews to demonstrate the dire impact upon access to justice.

One such interview, should you be interested, was with me, and can be found here.

GUEST POST: An open letter to the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association

An open letter to the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association in relation to legal aid rates under the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), signed by 193 criminal barristers.

 

Dear Chris,

We write to you and the CBA executive as junior Criminal barristers of 0-12 years’ call, in the wake of the government’s consultation response to Amending the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS 11), published on 10 December 2018.

We recognise the unenviable task the CBA executive faces in negotiating with the MoJ, and do not write in an effort to sow discord.  However, what follows is an earnest and unapologetic attempt to convey to you and the CBA leadership the strength and depth of our feeling against AGFS 11, even as amended.

The Monday Message sent on 10 December 2018 described the proposed amendments as “tangible progress”, and sounded a note of optimism that “[w]e are beginning to turn things around”.

Regrettably, we do not share this optimism. We are alsounderwhelmed by the degree of progress.  The fact that it is unprecedented does not of itself render it acceptable or worthy of celebration; following, as it does, over two decades of savage and dangerous cuts to the justice and Legal Aid budgets.

The 1% uplift and implementation of the newest statutory instrument with investment of the “additional” £8 million was simply the fulfilment of a promise; a promise on which the government had sought to renege.  On any view, the government’s reliance on out-of-date figures on which to base its offer of a £15 million “increase” was at best a mistake and at worst a conscious and cynicalmisrepresentation.

We are angry.  We believe that:

1. The current AGFS scheme is not fit for purpose;
2. Dramatic changes need to be made to the structure of how AGFS is paid;
3. There needs to be a significant increase in funding across the board (both defence and CPS funding);
4. A delay of 18 months until renegotiation is unacceptable.

It would be wrong to think that we at the (junior) junior Bar are not equally concerned with the destruction of PPE as those more senior. Its loss in paper-heavy cases represents the dismantling of our future. Moreover, when senior members inevitably begin to choose their cases more shrewdly, those of us lower down will face the unenviable choice of taking on cases we fear are too complex for our call or having gaps in our diaries.  We are seeing many examples of this happening already.

The current structure of payment, whereby guilty plea fees and cracked trial fees do not reflect the work involved in preparing for guilty pleas and ineffective trials (especially in cases that run to several thousandpages and beyond), is also creating a real risk to the quality of representation. The lack of adequate remuneration for work done out of court is greatly exacerbated (especially in the case of junior juniors) by the ubiquitous use of warned lists, with their in-built likelihood that counsel who prepares the case will not in fact do the trial (notwithstanding advices on evidence, conferences, legal arguments, defence statements, etc.). This has already begun to erode that quality of representation, with individuals understandably finding it impossible to justify the preparation time previously allocated to such cases, and to “go the extra mile”, as was previously routine.

The fees report due in 2020 will be redundant by the time it is published. There will either have been the dramatic change in funding that is needed by then or many of us will already have left the profession.  We are haemorrhaging talent. The idea that we don’t yet have a clear enough picture of the effect that AGFS 11 is having, and will continue to have, is laughable.  Whether the government likes it or not, the experiences of individual barristers are telling, and taken together they start to add up to irrefutable evidence.

Junior juniors are voting with their feet. They are either ceasing to conduct Legal Aid work (whether by moving into other areas of practice or going on long-term secondment) or they are leaving the self-employed Bar altogether.

We expect the MoJ to continue to listen and engage with the profession now, not in 2020.  What we want is a coherent and sustainable system of remuneration for work done.  This can and must be achieved without delay, through further negotiation. Plainly, we can only speak on behalf of those who have signed this letter, but for our part, we are in favour of direct action in the New Year, if needed to bring the MoJ back to the table. We acknowledge this will require careful planning and some creativity, with every effort made to protect those who would be financially unable to participate in, for example, a return to ‘no returns’.  We envisage discussions to that end early in the New Year and are cognisant of the need to prompt a meaningful response from government before March (n.b. Brexit).

At the juniors’ meeting on 24th November 2018 the mood was plainly, and strongly, in favour of further industrial action. It may be that the “additional” funding for AGFS11 has placated all of those individuals, and those whose views they conveyed to the meeting. All we ask is that the CBA does not simply assume that this is the case. Certainly, in respect of those who have signed this letter, it is not.

21 December 2018

Sent on behalf of:

1. Natalie Bird, 2 Bedford Row [2015]
2. Sam Shurey, 2 Bedford Row [2015]
3. Emilie Morrison, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2013]
4. Imogen Nelson, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2014]
5. Sam Barker, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2014]
6. Amy Oliver, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2016]
7. Will Martin, 2 Hare Court [2010]
8. Charlotte Watts, 2 Hare Court [2012]
9. Joshua Scouller, 2 King’s Bench Walk [2012]
10. Matilda Robinson-Murphy, 2 Kings Bench Walk[2015]
11. Patrick D.Harte, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
12. Charles Durrant, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
13. Jodie-Jane Hitchcock, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
14. Kate Chidgey, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
15. Nick Whitehorn, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
16. Andrew Horsell, 3 Temple Gardens [2009]
17. Carina Clare, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
18. Will Glover, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
19. Cameron Scott, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
20. Nargees Choudhury, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
21. Ruth Reid, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
22. Karlia Lykourgou, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
23. Beverley Da Costa, 3 Temple Gardens [2015]
24. Brad Lawlor, 3 Temple Gardens [2016]
25. Emily Lauchlan, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
26. Ryan Brennan, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
27. Rebecca Bax, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
28. Ylenia Rosso, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2014]
29. Kiran Pourawal, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2014]
30. Syam Soni, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2015]
31. Rebecca Moss, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2016]
32. Christina Josephides, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2016]
33. Michael Cameron-Mowat, 4 Bream’s Buildings[2017]
34. Phoebe Bragg, 5 King’s Bench Walk [2015]
35. Kate Parker, 5 Paper Buildings [2014]
36. John Oliver, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2008]
37. Dave Williams, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2009]
38. Karl Masi, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2011]
39. Alexandra Davey, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2013]
40. Nick Jones, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2016]
41. Puneet Grewal, 9 Bedford Row [2010]
42. Charlotte Mitchell-Dunn, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
43. Alex Matthews, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
44. Dréa Becker, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
45. Katie Mustard, 9 Bedford Row [2014]
46. Richard Reynolds, 9 Bedford Row [2014]
47. Leena Lakhani, 9 Bedford Row [2015]
48. Stefan Hyman, 9 Bedford Row [2015]
49. Aqeel Noorali, 9 Gough Square [2017]
50. Helen Dawson, 15 New Bridge Street [2015]
51. Oliver Kavanagh, 15 New Bridge Street [2015]
52. Ellen Wright, 15 New Bridge Street [2017]
53. Tom Lord, 15 Winckley Square [2009]
54. Kimberley Obrusik, 15 Winckley Square [2010]
55. Lucy Wright, 15 Winckley Square [2011]
56. Colette Renton, 15 Winckley Square [2015]
57. Sarah Magill, 15 Winckley Square [2016]
58. Holly Nelson, 15 Winckley Square [2017]
59. Patrick Duffy, 23 Essex Street [2007]
60. Nathan Rasiah, 23 Essex Street [2007]
61. Daniel Lister, 23 Essex Street [2009]
62. Carolina Cabral, 23 Essex Street [2009]
63. Jeremy Rosenberg, 23 Essex Street [2009]
64. Elisabeth Acker, 23 Essex Street [2010]
65. Helena Duong, 23 Essex Street [2010]
66. Victoria Gainza, 23 Essex Street [2010]
67. Rupert Wheeler, 23 Essex Street [2010]
68. Sarah-Kate McIntyre, 23 Essex Street [2011]
69. Alex Mills, 23 Essex Street [2012]
70. Sam Trefgarne, 23 Essex Street [2012]
71. Daniel O’Donoghue, 23 Essex Street [2013]
72. David Dainty, 23 Essex Street [2013]
73. Sasha Queffurus, 23 Essex Street [2014]
74. Robert Smith, 23 Essex Street [2014]
75. Tom White, 23 Essex Street [2015]
76. Kelly Cyples, 23 Essex Street [2016]
77. Josephine Teale, 23 Essex Street [2016]
78. Amelia Clegg, 23 Essex Street [2017]
79. Sushil Kumar, 25 Bedford Row [2009]
80. Henry Dickson, 25 Bedford Row [2012]
81. Laura Collier, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
82. Natasha Lloyd-Owen, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
83. Tom Flavin, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
84. Joy Lewis, 25 Bedford Row [2014]
85. Vida Simpeh, 25 Bedford Row [2014]
86. Nick Murphy, 25 Bedford Row [2015]
87. Suzanne Payne, 30 Park Place [2014]
88. Andrew Kerr, 33 Bedford Row [2006]
89. Dudley Beal, 33 Bedford Row [2014]
90. Stephen Reynolds, 33 Bedford Row [2014]
91. Roxanne Aisthorpe, 36 Bedford Row [2011]
92. Catherine Rose, The 36 Group [2017]
93. Dharmendra Toor, The 36 Group [2010]
94. Nadeem Holland, The 36 Group [2006]
95. Gerwyn Wise, 187 Fleet Street [2010]
96. Edward Duncan Smith, 187 Fleet Street [2011]
97. Daisy Monahan, 187 Fleet Street [2012]
98. Liam Edwards, 187 Fleet Street [2014]
99. Vakas Hussain, 187 Fleet Street [2014]
100. Gavin Capper, 187 Fleet Street [2015]
101. Tom Worden, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
102. Robert Levack, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
103. Sebastian Cox, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
104. Ann Crighton, Ann Crighton Chambers [2015]
105. Becky Owen, Becky Owen Law [2007]
106. Libby Anderson, Charter Chambers [2016]
107. Simon Elliott, Church Court Chambers [2007]
108. Alison Pryor, Church Court Chambers [2008]
109. Richard Mohabir, Church Court Chambers [2009]
110. Colin Witcher, Church Court Chambers [2010]
111. Tomas McGarvey, Church Court Chambers [2010]
112. Chiara Maddocks, Church Court Chambers [2011]
113. Fiona McAddy, Church Court Chambers [2011]
114. Anthony Eskander, Church Court Chambers [2012]
115. Estelle Thornber, Church Court Chambers [2012]
116. Michael Polak, Church Court Chambers [2012]
117. Gregory Wedge, Church Court Chambers [2014]
118. Holly Kilbey, Cornwall Street Barristers [2010]
119. Jeanette Stevenson, Cornwall Street Barristers [2012]
120. Andrew Parker, Cornwall Street Barristers [2016]
121. Georgia Luscombe, Drystone Chambers [2017]
122. Peter Killen, Exchange Chambers [2015]
123. Maya Chopra, Farringdon Chambers [2014]
124. Tom Hoskins, Foundry Chambers [2007]
125. Jonathan Underhill, Foundry Chambers [2008]
126. Merry van Woodenberg, Foundry Chambers [2012]
127. Jessica Tate, Foundry Chambers [2012]
128. Christopher Harper, Foundry Chambers [2013]
129. Sophie Murray, Foundry Chambers [2013]
130. Sophie Stannard, Foundry Chambers [2015]
131. Bethany Condron, Foundry Chambers [2016]
132. Yusuf Solley, Furnival Chambers [2009]
133. Sophie O’Sullivan, Furnival Chambers [2011]
134. Selena Jones, Furnival Chamers [2011]
135. Sam Stockwell, Furnival Chambers [2012]
136. Mandisa Knights, Furnival Chambers [2013]
137. Tulay Hodge, Furnival Chambers [2014]
138. Sadaf Etemadi, Furnival Chambers [2014]
139. Shannon Revel, Furnival Chambers [2014]
140. Chris Waymont, Furnival Chambers [2014]
141. Hannah Burton, Furnival Chambers [2014]
142. Andrew Taylor, Furnival Chambers [2015]
143. Charlotte Bellamy, Furnival Chambers [2017]
144. Shahida Begum, Garden Court Chambers [2008]
145. Meredoc McMinn, Garden Court Chambers [2015]
146. Elizabeth Garcia, Garden Court Chambers [2016]
147. Charlotte Bull, Goldsmith Chambers [2016]
148. Hannah Whelan, KCH Garden Square [2010]
149. Priya Bakshi, KCH Garden Square [2012]
150. Elisabeth Evans, KCH Garden Square [2012]
151. Samuel Coe, KCH Garden Square [2012]
152. Daniel Harman, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2008]
153. Simon Blakebrough, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2011]
154. Robert Lassey, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2016]
155. Sarah Cook, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2016]
156. Michael Shilliday, Lamb Building [2012]
157. Hannah Hurley, Lamb Building [2012]
158. James Hay, Lamb Building [2012]
159. Simon Gurney, Lincoln House Chambers [2006]
160. Lee Hughes, Lincoln House Chambers [2012]
161. Isobel Thomas, Lincoln House Chambers [2012]
162. Marianne Alton, Lincoln House Chambers [2014]
163. Matthew Bolt, Maidstone Chambers [2012]
164. Kate Smith, Maidstone Chambers [2013]
165. Anita Davies, Matrix Chambers [2011]
166. Margaret Morrissey, Morrissey’s Chambers [2015]
167. Katrina Wilson, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2007]
168. Lucky Thandi, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2011]
169. Abigail Hill, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
170. Almas Ben-Aribia, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
171. Rebecca Coleman, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
172. Lucy Jones, No.1 High Pavement Chambers [2014]
173. Helen Marley, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2016]
174. Ramya Nagesh, No.5 [2008]
175. Philip Vollans, No.5 [2015]
176. Thomas Coke-Smith, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2011]
177. Arabella MacDonald, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2012]
178. Eloise Emanuel, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2012]
179. Kathryn Hughes, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2013]
180. Ruth Broadbent, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2016]
181. Kyan Pucks, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2016]
182. Lauren Sales, Red Lion Chambers [2010]
183. Timothy Kiely, Red Lion Chambers [2014]
184. Marcus Harry, St Ives Chambers [2008]
185. Justin Jarmola, St Ives Chambers [2009]
186. Anthony Cartin, St Ives Chambers [2010]
187. William Douglas-Jones, St Ives Chambers [2011]
188. Lucinda Wilmott-Lascelles, St Ives Chambers[2014]
189. Aadhithya Anbahan, St Ives Chambers [2015]
190. Alexander Pritchard-Jones, St Ives Chambers [2015]
191. Gemma Maxwell, St John’s Buildings [2014]
192. Stephanie Wookey, Thomas More Chambers [2010]
193. Genevieve Moss, Thomas More Chambers [2015]

A few thoughts on the “£23m extra” for legal aid

Just a few thoughts about this story on the proposed “£23m increase” in legal aid criminal defence fees, which has been making some headlines. The Ministry of Justice has loudly publicised the agreement struck with the Criminal Bar Association over legal aid rates paid to criminal defence advocates – the story was even towards the top of the Radio 4 news bulletins – so some context may help anyone not fluent in the vacillating politics of the criminal Bar (i.e. normal people).

As an opening disclaimer, nothing that follows is intended as a dig at or slight towards those who have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of the criminal Bar to negotiate with an historically untrustworthy and dishonest Ministry of Justice. They have done their best, and have secured gains. However.

The MoJ’s press release headline is “The government will spend an additional £23 million on fees for criminal defence advocates”. This sounds like a big figure, and the MoJ want the public to think it’s a big figure, legal aid fat cats and all that. So let’s put it in context.

The Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme, which pays defence advocates in legal aid cases, has been cut relentlessly over recent years. As has the overall criminal legal aid budget. As has the overall legal aid budget. As has the overall MoJ budget. Approx 40% across the board.

Criminal legal aid has been cut in real terms by £340m since 2011/12. That has been achieved partially by cutting fees paid to advocates (AGFS), part by cutting fees paid to litigators (solicitors) (LGFS), part by restricting availability of legal aid to those accused of crimes.

To cut a long story of cuts very short, the latest wheeze by the MoJ was to introduce a new scheme of AGFS earlier this year. Its effect was to cut the fees in some complex cases by up to 80% (see this open letter). The Bar took action in April and refused to accept new defence cases under this scheme. This is because already poorly-paid work, particularly for the most junior practitioners, was simply unviable. We’re talking £3-an-hour unviable in some cases. The MoJ insisted the new scheme was “cost neutral”, just moving money around. This was untrue. It was a cut of £9m.

The MoJ persuaded the criminal Bar by a Brexit-like margin (51.5% to 48.5%) to vote to go back to work on the promise of £15m extra  being injected into the scheme by October 2018. The MoJ did not keep its promise. Firstly, the agreement had been that this £15m would be added to the AGFS spend for 2016/17. When it published its proposals, the MoJ disingenuously added the £15m to the figures for 2017/18, which were significantly lower (due to falling caseloads), and this had the effect of only increasing the 2016/17 spend by £8.6m. Secondly, it was not done in time for October as promised. So in November we’re still working on the new (terrible) rates.

There have since been further negotiations between the Bar and the MoJ, in an effort to undo at least some of the damage. The upshot is this “additional £23m”, which in fact simply represents the £15m which we were originally promised. (£23m is the figure you get if you use the 2017/18 figures.) And it’s worth noting that all these figures include VAT at 20%, which we are required to charge and pay to the taxman. So a good sixth of that figure is going straight back to the Treasury.

But in any case, what do these abstract figures mean? Not much. For a start, it’s based on modelling. So the increase only amounts to this figure if the workload in the courts remains broadly the same. It won’t, because fewer cases are being charged and brought to court, to save money. Without seeing the figures in the boxes (the details have not yet been published), it is impossible to properly assess how far this extra money will go, but to give context, the total spend on AGFS in 2016/17 was around £227m. So an added £15m is very small beer. It will probably help smooth some of the roughest edges in the scheme, but doesn’t touch the sides of the cuts over the past decade. Legal aid rates remain artificially low.

Junior criminal barristers will still be covering all-day hearings for senior colleagues and taking home less than £40 for the privilege. We will still have trials that we’ve spent days preparing randomly refixed by the court for dates we can’t do, and will be paid £0. We will still be paid not a penny to read through thousands of pages of disclosure – the vital material that could hold the key to saving an innocent person from years in prison. Our median take-home pay will still be a modest £27k. The most junior will still take home under £8k.

HOWEVER, here’s the point. It’s not actually about us. We choose this career and go into it with our eyes open. There’s a far bigger picture, which we must not lose sight of.

Much as what we get paid matters to us (and to society – you ain’t gonna have much of a lawyer prosecuting your burglar or defending you against a false allegation if they’re billing £5 an hour), it’s a tiny piece of that picture. The whole justice system needs investment.

The justice budget has been cut by 31% – by £2.9 BILLION – since 2010, with a further 9% cut (£800million) to take effect by 2020. The effects are those I, any many others, highlight every day. They are why I wrote the book. The justice system is broken.

The police have no resources to catch criminals. The CPS don’t have resources to prosecute, or to comply with disclosure to protect the innocent. The courts that haven’t been closed are crumbling, leaking wrecks. Victims, witnesses and defendants face chronic delays and errors.

Some defendants are excluded entirely from legal aid, forced to self-represent or pay privately. If acquitted, the government will not pay back their legal fees in full, leaving them destitute.

Prisons are too horrific to put into words, although I try here:

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So while the MoJ may congratulate itself, make no mistake – this is not a solution. Not even close. £15m for legal aid when you’ve sacrificed £4bn, demolished the court & prison estate and excluded the most vulnerable from accessing justice, is not the end. It’s barely the start.

GUEST POST: An open letter to The Criminal Bar Association, The South Eastern Circuit and The Bar Council

Below is an open letter published by five junior criminal practitioners in relation to the new Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which for non-lawyers is the scheme for payment of defence advocates in legally aided criminal cases. 

 

19thNovember 2018

 

We write in relation to a case which has just collapsed at the Crown Court sitting at Inner London. We write to express our dismay at the remuneration under the new AGFS scheme and the consequences which will now follow.

This was a five handed Conspiracy to Kidnap and Blackmail case and was listed with a four week estimate, due to commence today (19thNovember 2018). All counsel/advocates were instructed at the outset of this case.

The evidence was voluminous to say the least, with near enough 10,000 pages of used and served evidence and all counsel taking approximately 2 weeks out of court on various days to prepare the case for trial. Much of the evidence consisted of telephone transcripts and translated Spanish telephone evidence along with cell site mapping.

Only last week, the Crown disclosed information relating to the complainants character and that he was now refusing to come to court to give evidence. Indeed, he lost contact with the police officers in the case and switched his mobile phone off. This resulted in the crown applying to adduce his evidence under the hearsay provisions.

All defence counsel prepared skeleton arguments outlining their objections to the Crown’s application. These took several hours to research and prepare. There is no (and it should be highlighted, never has been), provision for payment for written work under the graduated fee regulations; a fact which in itself is utterly unacceptable.

But even more disgraceful are the rates of pay for such a serious case with thousands of pages of evidence and the fact that this trial has now ‘cracked’. With no provision for payment of Pages of Prosecution Evidence served (PPE), the brief fee is now only £1,105 (being a category 13.1 offence). Had the trial been contested, the brief fee would not have been much better (amounting to only £1,300). Both of these derisory figures amount to a reduction in advocates fees of approximately 80% as compared to the AGFS scheme which existed pre April 2018. Moreover, the above cracked trial fee is the total payment for all preparation in this case, is of course gross and so chambers rent, clerks fees and tax will need to be paid from this amount. To add insult to injury, the four week gap in our diaries now looms large.

It is, quite frankly, an absolute scandal that these new AGFS fees were ever agreed and that criminal barristers are now being expected to work for such derisory rates.  Each and every one of us defending in this case is making it clear to you that we will no longer undertake cases which are PPE heavy.

Enough is enough!

 

Mustapha Hakme (9 Bedford Row)

Zarif Khan (Drystone Chambers)

Archangelo Power (2 Bedford Row)

Paul Firmin

Phillip Hill

Announcement: Free Representation Unit

Those who read these pages, follow on Twitter or have waded through the book will know that access to justice is a cause about which I’m prone to making a fair bit of noise. The rule of law only works if individuals have the means to enforce their rights in the courts, which is only possible if they have access to proper legal advice and representation. Not everybody, of course, can afford to pay privately for legal services, in the same way that most people cannot pay for private healthcare. This is why legal aid is often talked about in the same breath as the NHS and other pillars of the post-war welfare state. It should act as a safety net, ensuring that everybody has the ability to enforce their legal rights and that nobody is excluded from the justice system for lack of money.

Regrettably, as well we know, legal aid does not evoke the same degree of public sympathy or affection as healthcare or education. As a consequence, it has been politically possible for governments of all stripes to strip away legal aid from large swathes of the population, including many of the most vulnerable among us. The result is that often people are forced into a Sophie’s choice between representing themselves in complex legal proceedings, or simply not even trying. To lean on my favourite healthcare analogy, they are invited either to operate on themselves or just accept that they won’t get treatment.

This justice gap is why the work of pro bono legal charities is so vital. Like with food banks, we would rather live in a society where such charitable endeavours were not needed; however, for those with nowhere else to turn, pro bono units provide the safety net where the state would let people fall. And this is why I am delighted and honoured to announce that I have joined the Free Representation Unit (FRU) as a patron.

FRU was set up as a charity in 1972, and specialises in social security and employment law, providing free legal representation to clients unable to afford to pay for lawyers. Its representatives are volunteers – many of whom are trainee lawyers – and it is reliant on charitable grants and donations to fund a team of staff running the office and supervising the 500 cases it takes on each year.

At present, FRU is seeking funding to support disabled people, particularly those with mental health issues, through social security appeals tribunals, with a focus on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals. A crowd-funding campaign is launched this week, with an initial target of £2,500.

If anybody reading is able to make a donation – however small – it would be hugely appreciated. I am kicking things off with a donation of my own, and we have 30 days to reach our target.

Thank you x

 

FRU says:

Any legal case is a daunting prospect for anyone, but particularly for our clients if they suffer from mental health conditions. Our recent work has seen us act for a victim of criminal violence with a split personality disorder, a client who suffers from post-concussion syndrome following an attack during the Tottenham Riots, and a victim of a violent rape now suffering from severe PTSD.

 Supporting these claimants as they re-live such traumatic events makes a huge difference to their experience of litigation and their chances of success. This means they get money to cover the costs of their disability. For our clients, the lack of Legal Aid means that they can’t afford to be represented.

 The Chairman of the Work & Pensions Parliamentary Select Committee recently said that “Claiming a benefit to which you are legitimately entitled should never be a humiliating, distressing experience. Government must move now, faster, to make this right.”

 Research with people with legal problems recently found that “The process of trying to pursue justice without legal aid added extra physical and mental strain, which may exacerbate existing physical and mental health issues or cause new ones. This was particularly noticeable for disabled participants, who found the stress of trying to resolve a welfare issue with inadequate advice made their health condition worse”.

 The benefit of legal advice is clear: people who are represented are successful in 65% of cases whereas those who are unrepresented are successful in only 45% of cases. We help our clients to get their voices heard so that decision makers truly understand their situation.

 If a tribunal agrees with the client’s benefit appeal they could receive between £22 and £145 per week in social security payments. For disabled people on a low income this could mean the difference between not leaving the house and having a life or not having to choose between heating and eating.

 By supporting FRU you would contribute to a charity that makes a clear difference to the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

 We represent on average two clients in a tribunal haring every working day of the year. Over a year one legal casework supervisor can support hundreds of volunteers. £2500 will enable us to pay a legal supervisor for a whole month to support our volunteers to do a great job. Raising more would keep our service going for longer.”