“If the MoJ has accepted that LASPO has damaged access to justice, we must continue to make the case for change.”
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Marc Bloomfield
In our column for the November 2018 issue of Legal Action, we wrote about what seemed to be the growing consensus that positive reform of legal aid was needed. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) had, at that time, recently finalised our submission to the post-implementation review (PIR) of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), and we were eagerly but cautiously awaiting the outcome of the review.
We now know that, at least in some respects, the view that ‘something must be done’ did infiltrate the walls of 102 Petty France.
With the publication of the review report (Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 37 (LASPO Part 1 review)) and the ‘Legal Support Action Plan’ (Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in February 2019, we now know that, at least in some respects, the view that ‘something must be done’ did infiltrate the walls of 102 Petty France. Unfortunately, in a number of areas – such as means testing, early legal advice in social welfare law and criminal legal aid – that ‘something’ is a further review or pilot.
The action plan does contain some tangible improvements, including the decision to scrap the mandatory telephone gateway for advice in debt, discrimination and special educational needs (page 15), and to extend the scope of legal aid for family law to include special guardianship orders (page 13). It is, however, incredibly disappointing that in the review of legal aid for inquests (Final report: review of legal aid for inquests, CP 39) – published at the same time as the LASPO review – the government decided not to introduce non-means-tested legal aid for bereaved families to be represented at inquests where the state has legal representation (para 131, page 25). The inequality of arms faced by many families in the inquest process will therefore continue.
As a group of aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers, our priorities are access to justice and access to the profession. We were therefore heartened to see the LASPO Part 1 review cite our submission, noting a key concern that, as a result of low remuneration combined with high levels of tuition fee debt, the barriers to entering the profession are deterring people from becoming legal aid lawyers (see para 48, page 11; para 804, page 192; and para 961, page 238).
So what do the LASPO Part 1 review and action plan offer aspiring legal aid lawyers who are desperate to overcome those barriers? There was no mention of the decision by the MoJ in 2010 to scrap the training contract grant scheme for legal aid firms (Catherine Baksi, ‘MoJ axes training grants for legal aid’, Law Society Gazette, 12 July 2010), and nothing approaching a commitment to increase rates for legal aid, which, according to the National Audit Office, had fallen in real terms by 34 per cent between 1999 and 2014 (Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, HC 784, 20 November 2014, para 3.20, page 33).
The LASPO Part 1 review recognises that ensuring ‘a strong and sustainable legal aid workforce is crucial to the provision of legal aid’ (para 800, page 191) and acknowledges that ‘there are clearly areas where we need to look further at remuneration in civil and family legal aid’ (para 52, page 11). Before doing so, the review says, the MoJ wants to see the result of the pilot on early legal advice in social welfare law.
There will also be a ‘holistic’ review of criminal legal aid (LASPO Part 1 review, para 67, page 13; para 855, page 204; and para 1078, page 261), and YLAL has been invited to join a panel of practitioners to advise the MoJ on what it says will be a comprehensive review of criminal legal aid fee schemes. We are proud that YLAL members include barristers, legal executives, paralegals and solicitors, and we feel that our diversity gives YLAL a unique voice and, perhaps, the potential to bridge the gap between different parts of the legal profession.
If the MoJ has now accepted that LASPO has damaged access to justice and failed even to achieve its own objectives, all of us need to continue to make the case for change, pushing for positive reform from the early advice pilot and the further reviews being undertaken by the government. This month, YLAL has been holding meetings with members in different parts of the country to plan our next steps in campaigning for legal aid.
For the three of us, this will be our final column as the chairing team of YLAL. In May, we will hand over to a brilliant new team to coordinate our dedicated and inspirational committee: Lucie Boase, Katie McFadden and Ollie Persey. We have every confidence that YLAL will continue to campaign passionately for access to justice, to seek to increase social mobility, diversity and access to the profession, and to provide a vital network of support, motivation and inspiration for current and future generations of legal aid lawyers. It has been a privilege to chair YLAL, and we look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength.

About the author(s)

Description: Katherine Barnes - author
Katherine Barnes is a barrister at 39 Essex Chambers and co-chair and treasurer of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Description: Oliver Carter - author
Oliver Carter is a solicitor in the public law and human rights team at Irwin Mitchell and co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Description: Siobhan Taylor-Ward - author
Siobhan Taylor-Ward is a trainee at Merseyside Law Centre and vice-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.