A packed LAG conference held in London last week (5 April 2019) to celebrate the 70th anniversary of legal aid heard from many of the profession’s leading lights. Keynote speaker Lady Hale expressed concerns about the cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), particularly their impact on family law.
Lady Hale, who is president of the Supreme Court and a long-time supporter of LAG, said that due to the LASPO changes, there had been increases in family law cases and litigants in person, and this ‘was always going to happen’. She also said that while McKenzie friends in court can be helpful, some were turning themselves into ‘unregulated fee-charging services’ and this raised the issue of how they should be overseen.
Not unexpectedly, the recently published reports of the LASPO post-implementation review1Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 37, MoJ, February 2019 and Post-implementation review of Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 38, MoJ, February 2019.
and were a big topic of discussion. Lady Hale was supportive of the review, but warned that ‘however, well-meaning the lord chancellor’, we are not likely to return to previous levels of funding for legal aid.
Speakers at the conference, which was held at the City firm Herbert Smith Freehills, included Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon) of Birnberg Peirce. In her speech, she listed listed the many reviews and reports that had made recommendations around the need for ‘equality of arms in inquests’. Despite public funding being available for public bodies, including the police and NHS, the government in the report published this year of its review into legal aid for inquests2Final report: review of legal aid for inquests, CP 39, MoJ, February 2019.
did not recommend that legal aid should be extended to bereaved relatives, leaving them, she said, in an ‘unjust and iniquitous position’.
In a breakout session on civil legal aid, Sue James, director of Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, said it often felt like the Legal Aid Agency was your ‘second opponent’ due to problems with CCMS (the client and cost management system) and the administration of legal aid applications. ‘Some LAA offices seem to understand the law and procedure better than others,’ she said. ‘We really should be on the same side.’
The afternoon session of the conference kicked off with a speech from Fiona Rutherford, deputy director of legal aid strategy and policy at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). According to Rutherford, the MoJ’s ‘ambition is to catch problems early’ and it is ‘absolutely committed to sharing and openness’ with legal aid providers in the review process. She discussed the early advice pilot and the reviews which have been announced by the MoJ (including the pilot for early face-to-face advice in social welfare law) and said it had a commitment to ‘deliver evidence-based policy change’.
In a final session, delegates enjoyed a light-hearted debate between lawyers on the greatest legal aid case ever. A low-key, unreported case taken by LAG author Diane Astin, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, won the day. She told the conference how supporting a 16-year-old homeless asylum-seeker to enforce his rights under the Children Act 1989 led to him being able to transform his life.
Despite the frustrations with the legal aid system to which many speakers referred, the mood of the conference was generally upbeat and celebratory. Lady Hale said she believes there are ‘reasons to be cheerful’, adding: ‘The message must be that there is still a role for publicly funded legal services to play within our system.’
Speeches from Lady Hale and LawWorks CEO Martin Barnes are available to download and read here