Legal Aid Practitioners Group Annual Legal Aid Conference 2021 – update on the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid
Lammy pulled no punches, asking the lord chancellor to take action to tackle the problems with civil and criminal legal aid. It was the first time I had heard an MP talk about levelling up and the role that a healthy advice and legal aid sector will make in this.
Having participated in this morning’s 8 am Pilates session, I joined the workshop on ‘The Westminster Commission on Legal Aid: lessons learned so far – criminal defence, family, civil legal aid and the publicly-funded bar’. Karen Buck MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid, and vice-chair James Daly MP were introduced by Rohini Teather, LAPG head of parliamentary affairs.
Teather set the scene, referring to the earlier evidence sessions. Profit margins for practices have been a concern for many years. The Otterburn and Ling survey
(published in February 2014) reported that the net profit margin for crime firms was five per cent. Rosaleen Kilbane of Community Law Partnership referred to her firm’s 3.6 per cent profit rate in civil legal aid work. The APPG on Legal Aid is going to carry out a workforce survey to gather data into the financial viability of practices across both crime and civil legal aid. This will fill the gap left by the cessation of previous surveys, eg, by the Legal Services Research Centre. The inquiry will work in collaboration with the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid
and practitioners to create as comprehensive a picture as possible of who is working in legal aid now and who will be practising in the next three to five years.
Buck referred to setting up the APPG on Legal Aid in 2007, when she was first chair. She left for a short time because of other commitments but returned as chair to a legal aid system under more pressure than ever. Karen is not a lawyer and feels that discussions are too often seen as dominated by practitioners. It is essential to hear their voices in parliament but, the debate on legal aid and access to justice needs to be set in a broader context.
Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2021 and the COVID-19 crisis, where serious economic consequences have to be grappled with, vulnerable people will be terribly exposed. The inquiry will look at what has happened, particularly during the pandemic.
Daly practised in a high-street firm with his wife, doing criminal legal aid work. Then Bury Magistrates’ Court closed down. Their practice became unsustainable after the court closed, so he had to give up criminal legal aid work and retrain in conveyancing; he does understand the pressures on legal aid practices. The inquiry is about sustainability for the legal profession: urgent action needs to be taken to give people a future in legal aid. But it is also about access to justice: it is not acceptable that for some civil areas no legal aid is available. ‘We need a sustainable profession and that is why we need the inquiry,’ he said.
A video was shown of the evidence that has already been given from Lorraine Green of Miles and Partners, Mackintosh Law co-director Nicola Mackintosh QC (Hon), Rook Irwin Sweeney partner Polly Sweeney, Beck Fitzgerald co-founder and LAPG co-chair Jenny Beck, Adam Wagner of Doughty Street Chambers, Bullivant Law solicitor and director Kerry Hudson, Michael Etienne and Natasha Shotunde of Garden Court Chambers, Ben Hoare Bell partner Cris McCurley, and Dr S Chelvan, 33 Bedford Row’s head of immigration and public law.
Daly made it clear that a 7–10 per cent increase in fees is needed alongside changes to what can be paid for. There needs to be more access to justice (his dog joined in at this point and barked in support) and increased scope in civil cases. Buck flagged up the number of advice deserts and the decline in criminal duty solicitors.
It was good to hear the politicians stress the importance of advice and legal aid for civil society.
COVID-19 has exacerbated everything. Daly said feels that there would be uproar if everyone understood what is happening. He believes that if he punched someone in the middle of Bury with four witnesses, little would happen: he would probably be released under investigation and there would be no penalty after some months. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Shops feel that people can shoplift with impunity because the police do not have the resources to attend.
Buck flagged up the passion and commitment shown by the people who have given evidence. The practitioners who have appeared as witnesses are paid very modestly. How can a new generation of people be attracted into the profession?
Daly stressed that criminal legal aid firms will be lost. There are some bigger firms in cities, but one he spoke to yesterday cannot afford to take on a trainee solicitor. The junior bar will continue to struggle. The government must ‘soon’ make a decision about legal aid. He hopes that Sir Christopher Bellamy QC (chair of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid) will tackle this as money needs to be put into the system.
Buck highlighted the danger of people focusing on the income of a few highly paid members of the profession. There is criticism of activist lawyers. Daly responded that he was thankful for activists. They represent people whose lives are rocky and need assistance to sort out their legal problems not just with criminal charges but on civil matters, eg, Department for Work and Pensions issues.
Daly stressed that the justice system is not working. Release under investigation does not work for alleged offenders or for the public. The public will understand that a criminal conviction is life-changing, so people need representation. He feels that everyone can understand these concepts. [he also suggested that the means test be abolished for criminal legal aid and in areas of civil law such as domestic abuse cases.
One of the posts in the chatroom pointed out that ‘the problem is that government thinking is coloured by the stories that get heard. They don’t want to fund unpopular or “undeserving” causes, and the wider public tends to perceive criminals or people who can't pay their rent as “undeserving”. We need to get to grips with that narrative and engage with it in order to win the case with government for sustainable funding within the justice system.’ There was a lot of interesting discussion in the chatroom, with other comments about low fees, the problem of recruiting, bureaucracy, the role of the third sector and the role of the press.
Buck and Daly will give you hope: this was a serious and thoughtful discussion. And, as Buck flagged up, do keep contacting your own MP to make sure they understand the issues.
There is more to come as the LAPG conference
is spread over this week – you can still take part and it is very competitively priced.
For more information about the APPG on Legal Aid and the Westminster Commission’s Inquiry into Sustainability, visit the APPG’s website