“The LASPO review feels like the only opportunity we have to try to bring about change.”
This article attempts to answer the questions the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) is being asked about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) post-implementation review.
Q. Isn’t this old news? I vaguely remember this being discussed over the past few years?
A. It is indeed the case that the review was promised while the LASPO bill was being debated in parliament. The aim was to hold the review and report by 1 April 2018, the fifth anniversary of LASPO coming into force. Sir Oliver Heald QC MP, then minister with responsibility for legal aid, announced at an All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting on 17 January 2017 that the review would shortly commence (see February 2017 Legal Action
Q. Why did it take so long between announcement and serving the document (see below)?
A. There was a team in place at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for months before the announcement in January 2017. We understand that the process was ready to start but then the general election was called and that delayed matters.
Q. If the review is being carried out by officials from the MoJ, what role does the Justice Committee have? Wasn’t some memo served on them?
In these circumstances, we consider that our most constructive contribution to the review is to suggest how it might be accomplished successfully, including our expectations of the review methodology. This will allow us to add value while avoiding duplication of effort …
The letter went on to suggest an independent steering group as well as a robust cost-benefit analysis, and contained recommendations to read the many reports already in existence (with reference made to its own report) and to take into account the public sector equality duty. Importantly, it stressed:
We accept that it would be appropriate to assess the impact of the reforms under Part 1 of LASPO against the original policy objectives of the legislation. Mindful of the late Lord Bingham’s eight principles of the rule of law, we would urge you to also consider the impact of the reforms on access to justice as a constitutional right and on the rule of law more generally.
Q. Have the changes in ministers affected the position?
A. At the time of the election, Liz Truss was lord chancellor, then David Lidington and now David Gauke. The junior minister with responsibility for legal aid was Sir Oliver Heald QC, followed by Dominic Raab, and is currently Lucy Frazer QC. It would be a reasonable assumption that changes have led to delays. There have also been changes in the composition of the review team at the MoJ.
Q. So has the review itself actually started?
This engagement is going to be conducted in several forms:
•Consultative groups led by MoJ officials, to which certain interested parties will be invited to participate. Interested parties will be grouped into four sectors: civil justice, family justice, criminal justice and the advice sector. Participants will vary for each group to broaden engagement and ensure the data and evidence discussed are as relevant as possible.
•Individual engagement between MoJ officials and interested parties who wish to provide data and evidence. This will be an avenue by which the MoJ can take into account the experiences of people who receive government-funded legal advice and representation.
•A route by which interested parties are able to submit data and evidence to MoJ officials for consideration as part of this work.
The review team convened the four meetings in April. Only small numbers were invited to each meeting. The plan is to hold another two rounds of meetings with these groups.
Q. What about everyone who was not invited?
A. Some major players were not invited. Public Law Project (PLP) wrote a very thoughtful letter to the review team
on 21 December 2016 suggesting some issues that should be covered. A letter was sent to Lucy Frazer QC
after the announcement of the meetings from a group of charities that had not been invited: as well as PLP, the letter was signed by Amnesty International UK, the Association of Lawyers for Children, the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, JustRights, Rights of Women, Youth Access, and the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust.
The review team have stressed that they are happy to meet groups and individuals at face-to-face meetings and a large number of groups have already met with them.
Q. Can we see the minutes of the four meetings to see what was discussed?
A. We have written to ask for the minutes. We understand that they will be published but currently have no further information on when this will be. We do know from the attendees with whom we have spoken (and LAPG was invited to the civil and crime meetings) that the discussions were wide-ranging and useful.
Q. What can anyone with concerns about LASPO do now?
Q. Is the review just about what should be done to resolve problems caused by LASPO?
A. No – the team is looking to the future. This is from the terms of reference:
The consultations that preceded LASPO were published over seven years ago, and since this time there have been significant developments in our justice system. This includes the processes through which people can access legal advice. We have seen changes in our courts and tribunals service, which are also apparent more generally in the rapid technological advancements seen across society over the past seven years.
As such, the government plans to use this opportunity to inform its wider consideration on the future of legal support in the justice system.
Q. Is there a date for submissions?
A. We think the cut-off date will be in September 2018.
Q. There were over 5,000 responses to the consultation pre-LASPO and many of the concerns expressed there were ignored. Is there any point in engaging?
A. We say yes. There is a danger that people feel they will be ignored and so will not engage. We are engaging and indeed, with other groups, ran a conference in June which the review team attended. This was one opportunity for the sector to feed into the review but we anticipate that organisations will provide written submissions and continue to hold face-to-face meetings with the review team.
This feels like the only opportunity we have to try to bring about changes. We have concerns that some changes that should have been made already have been delayed by waiting for the LASPO review, but if the review team does not hear from practitioners and clients about the devastating effects of LASPO then there is very little hope of any improvement.