Young Legal Aid Lawyers
“Unity across professions can help us all in campaigning for our causes in the court of public opinion.”
Legal aid lawyers, doctors and teachers have much in common. We are professionals who serve the public in our different ways, motivated by social justice and a desire – or indeed a vocation – to make a difference to people’s lives. During the past few years, we have found further common ground: opposition to damaging cuts and reforms imposed by the government.
We believe there are opportunities for the medical, teaching and legal professions to work together and support each other, as professionals dedicated to public service. Every one of us has a fundamental right to decent healthcare, education and access to justice. However, recent reforms have jeopardised those rights to such an extent that each of our professions has taken direct action and brought legal challenges against the coalition and Conservative governments.
Legal Action readers will be grimly familiar with the problems faced by both criminal and civil legal aid lawyers in the age of austerity. Criminal lawyers have taken direct action and challenged the government’s proposed two-tier contracts for duty and own-client work in the courts, and ultimately justice secretary Michael Gove abandoned the contract and suspended a second 8.75 per cent fee cut. Civil legal aid lawyers have brought a series of (mostly) successful challenges to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and subsequent reforms: the exceptional funding scheme, the domestic violence eligibility criteria, the ‘no permission, no payment’ regulations for judicial review and, most recently, the residence test.
On 1 April 2016, the third anniversary of LASPO coming into force, we joined LAG, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Resolution, the Law Society and other representative groups in calling on the government to review the reforms at the earliest opportunity. It is vital that this review, when it comes – as the government promised it would within three to five years of implementation of LASPO – is conducted objectively and fairly.
In the world of education, the government recently tried to compel all schools to convert to academies, outside the control of local authorities, despite evidence that council-supervised schools outperform academies (‘New figures reveal council maintained schools continue to outperform academies’, Local Government Association press release, 25 April 2016) and in the face of opposition from teaching unions and MPs across the political spectrum. In March, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference supported a strike ballot over the government’s forced academisation plans and it has subsequently backtracked on them. At the same conference, the then NUT general secretary, Christine Blower, raised the prospect of taking co-ordinated industrial action in solidarity with junior doctors.
The dispute between the government and junior doctors concerns a new contract that the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has decided to impose after agreement on its terms could not be reached. While the contract would increase basic pay for junior doctors, it reduces the rates paid for working unsociable hours by redefining normal working hours to include Saturdays and weekday evenings. As the dispute has escalated, junior doctors have staged several strikes, including withdrawal of emergency care. A revised contract was finally agreed on 18 May between the government and the British Medical Association, and will now be put to a vote of BMA members.
In addition to this industrial action, there are two separate judicial review challenges underway: one by the BMA, focused on whether the government had due regard to the disproportionate impact of the contract on women in accordance with the public sector equality duty (Equality Act 2010 s149), and another broader public law challenge by Justice for Health, a group of junior doctors arguing that the government failed to undertake proper consultation and that the decision to impose the contract was irrational and unlawful.
Readers who have followed the numerous challenges to the government’s legal aid reforms will be familiar with these arguments and, we expect, will be sympathetic to the junior doctors’ cause. With this in mind, we invited Dr Francesca Silman, one of the junior doctors behind the crowdfunded Justice for Health judicial review (www.crowdjustice.co.uk/case/nhs/
), to speak at the YLAL meeting in London on 11 May. Unity across professions can help us all in campaigning for our causes in the court of public opinion. Governments have certain core obligations to their citizens, and we believe that healthcare, education and justice are foremost among these.
We were also lucky to hear from CrowdJustice founder Julia Salasky. Over £600,000 has been raised for almost 50 cases through CrowdJustice to date. Of course, crowdfunding has its limitations but YLAL will support initiatives that enhance access to justice. We may argue that a properly resourced and comprehensive legal aid scheme would obviate or at the very least diminish the need for a platform like CrowdJustice, but unless and until the government fulfils its duty to ensure that justice is accessible to all, innovations that harness technology may be our best hope for improving access to justice. And if vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, then perhaps legal aid lawyers are well-placed to become pioneers. ■