“The scales have tipped too far towards bureaucratic practices. Too many clients are excluded because of financial evidential hurdles those in crisis cannot meet.”
The great thing about a three-week holiday (aside from the obvious) is the chance to stand back from work and have a think about priorities.
From a distance, all the issues on which the Legal Aid Practitioners Group works remain of importance. These include:
•working on operational issues to try to improve the legal aid scheme;
•collecting feedback on the client and cost management system (CCMS), and feeding that into the Legal Aid Agency and other representative bodies;
•being part of the policy debate – running the All Party Group on Legal Aid with Young Legal Aid Lawyers and attending meetings with politicians, the Ministry of Justice and the LAA;
•holding events like our annual conference and the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards; and
•rolling out more training especially the new LAPG Certificate in Practice Management.
After deeper reflection, particularly bearing in mind Labour’s review of legal aid, these are my top five issues for LAPG and the wider profession:
1. Ensuring those who are entitled to advice receive it
We need to make sure clients who need advice, assistance and representation, who fall within LASPO and are financially eligible, can get it. There are too many difficulties placed in their way. Clients with civil cases face many more problems accessing advice than those with criminal cases. Taxpayers’ money should be used correctly, but it is objectionable to say that people can get advice when in reality they cannot because they are unable to comply with increasingly tighter evidential requirements. There is a balance and many of our members feel the scales have tipped too far towards bureaucratic practices that deprive people of access to justice. Too many are excluded because of financial evidential hurdles that those in crisis cannot meet. Evidential problems are preventing people who suffer domestic violence from seeking protection. Vulnerable people and children have suffered in many ways post-LASPO.
2. Bringing people back in scope (or providing a suitable alternative)
Put simply, LASPO cut too many people out. Either they need to be brought back in or new ways of dealing with disputes need to be piloted and introduced. We await with interest the post-LASPO reports due out in December and January.
3. Letting lawyers do what they do best
Practitioners are the backbone of the system. Many are weary of the battling they carry out for their clients. They want to use their skills to represent their clients. They do not want to spend so much time unpaid, dealing with issues resulting from the complexity of the scheme. Many practitioners are disheartened by what they perceive as micro-management by the LAA. Practitioners need to be able to run cases in a way that ensures they meet their professional requirements and complies with the legal aid scheme. An essential part of this is that civil practitioners need the CCMS to be fit for purpose. Simplifying the scheme will greatly assist the CCMS process.
We need politicians who understand the rule of law and the importance of justice.
4. The lack of government engagement
We need the government to engage with the profession in a meaningful way. Sure, there is not always unanimity among the profession, but there is a huge amount of understanding of what the system is now and what will happen if changes are made. Too often, the profession responds thoughtfully and in huge numbers to government consultations, only for those responses to be ignored. As part of this, we need the MoJ, the LAA and the National Audit Office to work well together, and with the professions and all those in the system who understand the implications of changes to it. We need politicians who will not think only of the next year and the most cuts that can be made. We need politicians who understand the rule of law and the importance of justice. We need politicians who do not hide behind cuts, criticising the profession as self-interested (let’s be clear: legal aid work is not for the self-interested). We need constructive engagement on issues as diverse as the post-LASPO landscape and how to procure contracts without endless litigation.
5. Reducing complexity
Finally, we need a clearer system. A legal aid system that clients do not understand and that requires practitioners to pore over thousands of pages to comprehend is not one that we can be proud of. It needs to be simplified. We want to be proud of it. ■