More changes to legal-aid and judicial review – transformation or reducing access to justice: May 2013

Leander Neckles, of Necko Consultancy, is a free lance equalities consultant and a Board member of Equanomics-UK.
 
This article identifies the main consultation proposals on legal aid launched on 9th April 2013, highlights some key implications for race equality, provides links to briefings and highlights a meeting for NGOs on 28th May 2013 who wish to respond to the consultation. The deadline for responses is 4th June 2013.
 
Consultation on legal aid launched on 9th April 2013 and a meeting for NGOs
The Secretary of State says “Access to justice should not be determined by your ability to pay, and I am clear that legal aid is the hallmark of a fair, open justice system. “  However, whilst the Government talks about reform, a central concern raised by many organisations is that access to justice will be seriously undermined if these proposals are implemented.  An open meeting is being held on Tuesday, 28th May 2013 (4 – 6 pm) at the Law Society, Chancery Lane, London. Places at the meeting are limited and should be reserved in advance, please RSVP to events@doughtystreet.co.uk or contact Jennifer Noone on +44 20 7 404 1313.
 
What are the main proposals in the latest legal aid consultation?
The main proposals are to:

  • restrict the legal aid framework in terms of eligibility, scope and merits;
  • increase competition in the criminal legal aid market;
  • introduce changes and reduce fees in criminal legal aid and civil legal aid;
  • make changes to expert fees in civil, family and criminal proceedings;
  • change  ‘ prison law to ensure that legal aid is not available for matters that do not justify the use of public funds such as treatment issues’;
  • introduce ‘a household disposable income threshold above which defendants would no longer receive criminal legal aid’;
  • introduce ‘a residence test for civil legal aid claimants’;
  • introduce changes ‘to reduce the use of legal aid to fund weak judicial reviews’; and
  • amend ‘the civil merits test to prevent the funding of any cases with less than a 50% chance of success’.

The impact proposals and the impact on black and minority ethnic communities
Children, young people and adults from black and minority ethnic communities are disproportionately represented in care (see BTEG and BAAF) secure institutions and prison. By reducing access to justice these proposals will have serious adverse implications for people from black and minority ethnic communities.  Key organisations and legal practitioners have produced briefings and highlighted concerns about the MoJ’s proposals. The Howard League for Penal Reform argues that children released from secure institutions will face increased homelessness and the dangers of the streets because it will no longer be possible to challenge local authorities who inappropriately treat them as homeless when they leave secure institutions. The Howard League also argues that the changes  “may also lead to a collapse in justice in the very place where it should be paramount – within prison walls. This will impact on children as well as adults. These cuts build on proposed reforms which seek to deny people the opportunity to pursue judicial reviews. These are crucial in highlighting and preventing violence in jails and making sure that young people can rebuild their lives, which helps keep the public safe.”

The following briefings, drawn together by the Equality and Diversity Forum may be of assistance: 

 The views of the Society of Black Lawyers, the Society of Asian Lawyers and other key bodies
In their joint open letter to the Evening Standard six bodies – the  London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, the  Society of Asian Lawyers, the Society of Black Lawyers, the Association of Muslim Lawyers, the British Nigeria Law Forum and  the Black Solicitors Network – expressed their  shock and dismay at the planned ‘reform’ of Criminal Legal Aid referring to the proposals as ‘ ill-considered and damaging.’ If implemented they argue that the proposals will be disastrous for criminal legal aid, black and minority ethnic lawyers and black and minority ethnic communities