The state of legal aid — my speech to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum

Thank you for inviting me to speak – in the best traditions of these things, this event created online controversy before it even started

Twitter users questioned fee for an online event on the future of hard-pressed legal aid lawyers – a fee I’m told it would take junior legal aid at least three days to earn.

I’m told by organisers there are free and reduced priced tickets.

I’ve been asked to speak on the state of legal aid – I’d like to thank the Legal Practitioners Group, the Legal Action group, Law centres network, Support through Court, the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association and Inquest for their help in preparing this

I want to focus on the people who need help from legal aid

The Westminster Inquiry into legal aid heard powerful testimony last month from three individuals helped by legal aid – but only after all had put up a fight to get the funding – or at least some of it.

Angela Pownall, whose son Arian Jennings became acutely mentally unwell and took his life, was put in touch with a solicitor through the charity Inquest, to represent her at the inquest into her son’s death.

Greater Manchester Police, Penine Care and the Acute Trust, were all represented by barristers.

Two days before the 9-day inquest, Angela was told that the legal aid application had not been processed, which meant the barrister would not be able to attend the inquest.

It took a nudge from the coroner, the LAA part-funded her representation. To fund the rest, Angela had to use money that she had borrowed from a family member – money she had intended to use to fund her son’s funeral.

Without a lawyer and facing the legal teams for the hospitals and the police, all seeking to protect their own reputations rather than find out what had gone wrong with her son’s care, Angela would not have been able to deal with the inquest – grieving for her son, and when there were some days she could not shower.

She quite reasonably asked whether anyone would have been able to go to court and hear about their child’s autopsy and last moments, and then been able to ask questions of the witnesses.

Pam Coughlan was very seriously injured in a road accident. She and 11 other disabled residents of a large NHS house were promised a ‘home for life’ if they moved to a brand new state of the art NHS facility.

Her care was provided by the NHS until, in the 1990s, the North and East Devon Health Authority tried to transfer responsibility for her care to Social Services – which would have meant she and all the other residents had to move, and have to pay for their won social care.

With the help of legal aid lawyer, Nicola Mackintosh, she brought a judicial review case, which enabled her to stay in her home and established nursing care was health care and not the responsibility of social services.

Stephen Tyler is a physically disabled man with three small children who became wheelchair bound. His family were evicted from their private rented accommodation having asked for reasonable adjustments to be made to accommodate Stephen’s disability.

Despite offers of temporary accommodation by Birmingham City Council, the family found themselves homeless. Stephen’s wife and children were able to stay with her family, but because of his wheelchair Stephen was unable to access the property and had to sleep in his car.

The family looked for private accommodation to rent but were rejected again and again because landlords did not want to accept housing benefits.

With the involvement of rose Arnall, a lawyer at Shelter, Stephen brought a case against one of the estate agents that discriminated against him on account of his benefits

All of these people have had to fight for funding – at extremently stressful times in the lives

Without expert lawyers they would have been unable to achieve the outcomes that they did.

These are some of the people who have been helped by legal aid. Because legal aid is about people.

People who need legal aid, do not chose to have legal problems – a mother does not chose to have to try to find out what went wrong with his dead son’s care, people do not chose to have to fight for a roof over their head or to have their care needs met.

Many who find themselves in need of legal help are there because they have been let down by the state or others – their children have not been given the support they need for their schooling and development, the DWP have incorrectly stopped their benefits, which also leads to issues with their tenancy and may lead to them facing eviction.

All to often the legal aid debate is framed solely around lawyers fees – with the government and its ministers cynically and unfairly casting aspurtians on these fat-cat, do-good, lefty, actist lega aid lawyers.

They do not and would not dare to make the same attack on nurses, doctors and teachers – you do not hear them talking about nurses intervening at the last minute to save lives, or teachers doing all they can to help children pass their exams.

So why attack lawyer who intervene to help people?

But, believe it or not – those three people – Angela,  Pam and Stephen are the fortunate ones – hundreds of thousands of people are denied legal aid due to cuts intorduced by the LASPO, which removed many areas of law from public funding.

Most social welfare law (education, employment, debt, housing, immigration and welfare benefits) and private law children and family cases are now out of scope.

Even where areas of law are still covered, people have to be pretty much destitute to get legal aid – under the means test that has not been updated for years

This has forced more people into a situation where, if they wish to access justice, they must do so without legal representation.

Some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised members of our society have been hardest hit by the changes. Legal troubles are often compounded by additional disadvantages such as language barriers, and mental or physical disability.

The lack of access to early legal advice often means that cases have become more complicated and urgent by the time they do each lawyers.

Support Through Court — formerly The Personal Support Unit–  a charity that supports people who have to represent themselves in court, says demand for its services have sky-rocketed.

The cuts have created the advice deserts:

Over a third of the population live in local authorities which do not have a single housing legal aid provider

There are just 8 firms in England and wales with a legal aid contract for Special educational needs cases

They have also caused widespread miscarriages of justice, the draining of the talent pool of future lawyers and judges as young people increasingly choose a career away from legal aid and burn out among who are left due to year of financial stress and emotional pressure.

If you want me to talk about money, instead of people I’m happy to do that.

I attended a virtual event the other day – I think it was during the LAPG conference – the legal aid minister, Alex Chaulk said there needed to be evidence for an increase in legal aid, showing the benefit of early legal advice

For as long as I’ve been a journalist I have written about reports detailing the evidence base for legal aid and the devastating impact of cuts:

The bach commission, the low commission, the PAC, the justice committee, the bar council, the law society, LAPG Justice,

Legal aid for early legal advice saves money

Research by the Legal Action Group has demonstrated that every £1 spent on legal aid advice saves the state £6.

Law Centres calculated that in a single year they add £43m to the economy in keeping people employed, paying taxes etc.

Where there is a political will, money is available. The money for civil legal aid is a small change for Government, it could be doubled, and it would hardly be noticed by the treasury.

In 2010, annual expenditure for the civil and criminal justice system stood at approximately £2bn per annum, which equates to the cost of running the NHS for a fortnight.

Now, it is approximately £1.5bn a year

The government is willing to spend £37bn on track and trace

£849m on eat out to help out – no evidence base required

It is happy to fund lawyers to represent it when it finds itself before the courts — I James Eadie QC works for legal aid rates

in a recent legal challenge over the government’s commissioning of PPE, the government told the court the bill for its lawyers would be £1M

Turning briefly to crime – that can be summed up in short order – cuts, court closures, reduced sitting days – and then cam covid. Not the backlog has reached an all time high with more than 55,000 cases in the crown court, trials listed for 2023 and warnings about miscarriages of justice

What the figures do not convey is the sheer human misery– Cuts to legal aid are literally making people sick – and costing lives.

With the help of Tom at legal cheek – I have created my own Hancock style banner  — which I think may have been displayed while I have been speaking

It is the plea to government of all legal aid lawyers, civil and criminal, and those who need their help – fund legal aid, do justice, save lives.


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