“It is essential that we do not switch off and take the view that there is no point in responding to consultations.”
As the February 2017 news pages of Legal Action showed, there has been a raft of recent announcements that will affect practitioners and clients. Having spent months of our lives responding to consultations, arguably nobody has more right than Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) staff (that’s two of us) and our committee of practitioners to ask if it does any good. So many of us have responded to so many consultations and only slight improvements have resulted.
Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme consultation
Reforming the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme is a classic ‘We have no more money but would like to redistribute the money available’ consultation – in this case for advocates in the criminal justice system. This is a tricky consultation as there is a need for careful modelling to work out how it will affect firms (there are very few not-for-profits (NfPs) that do criminal defence work). There has been disquiet about the effect of the proposals on the junior Bar and solicitor advocates. The Law Society, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association have all expressed their concerns.
Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme consultation
The Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS) consultation is completely different (see also page 9 of this issue). There are proposals to group together some courts to try to achieve big enough contracts to be viable. HPCDSs have, to date, suffered in places from organisations finding it uneconomic to run the schemes.
Chris Minnoch, LAPG’s operations director, says those who currently run a scheme or might be interested in doing so need to look very carefully at the proposals. For example, two schemes being combined, Croydon and Bromley, are currently run by two different NfP agencies that will need to think hard about bidding against each other.
Post-implementation review of LASPO
Sir Oliver Heald QC, minister of state for courts and justice (with responsibility for legal aid), has at last announced the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). It has to be completed by March 2018, five years after the Act’s commencement.
Many of us predicted the problems with the post-LASPO landscape: those suffering domestic violence unable to obtain legal aid; a significant increase in litigants in person; worrying issues on cross-examination by alleged perpetrators of harassment; social welfare changes leading to representation at crisis level rather than early advice, if at all. Changes to the financial eligibility test also caused the problems predicted as vulnerable people found it hard to produce the documentary evidence required post-LASPO. And more changes have been brought in despite consultation responses flagging up serious concerns, eg, tribunal fee rises deterring people from bringing claims on basic employment and immigration rights.
Paul Summerbell, head of family law at Warren’s Law and Advocacy, recalls that these changes were founded on the very clear message that austerity meant that we had to save money ‘yet various reports – and, indeed, bitter experience – have taught us that for every £1 spent on legal aid, society saves £6 elsewhere on homelessness and children being taken into care. This represents a backward step of some 35 years. Care proceedings are at their highest numbers since the 1980s. It does not even begin to take account of the majority of family cases having at least one unrepresented party in proceedings and the increased workload for Cafcass. This represents a social care bill running into billions. The changes are indefensible, even by politicians’.
You may wonder what will be achieved by this review that is not already covered in the reports from the Low Commission, the Justice Select Committee, Amnesty and Unite. Until recently, I had not even spotted Counting the cost of family failure – 2016 update
(February 2016) by the Relationships Foundation, but I have looked at research by Youth Access, the Children’s Commissioner for England and many others, which provide thoughtful contributions to the whole debate about rights and access to advice and representation.
LAPG is trying to respond to all consultations affecting our members. We regularly ask our members for case examples. Well-chosen examples illustrate concisely and often movingly what the respondee is highlighting. It is essential that we as a profession do not switch off and take the view that there is no point in answering these requests for information.
So when we do know how the government wants to consult on LASPO, we urge everyone to carve out some time to give their input. We hope the government will also look at the effect of other changes that were not brought in by LASPO but now interact and adversely affect access to justice.
Jenny Beck, co-chair of LAPG and chair of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee, says: ‘We must not be cynical and decide not to respond. We need to use our skills to argue persuasively on behalf of our clients and also those people parliament surely thought would receive advice and be represented but are unable to access advice.’