Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘criminal legal aid

Legal support – the way ahead? How much vision?

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I have already noted the outcome of the  Post-Implementation Review of changes to the Legal Aid scheme contained in Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. While the Government clearly does not want to make major changes to the scheme, the review did reveal issues to which the Government clearly feels it must respond. In February 2019 it published Legal Support: The Way Ahead – An action plan to deliver better support to people experiencing legal problems.

As a paper, it lacks the ambition or vision of other recent reports, in particular the Report of the Low Commission report on the future of legal services. But buried in the detail is a number of straws in the wind which are worth noting, even if they don’t make the heart race.

The Paper starts by repeating the point that the Government already provides ‘£1.6 billion to the most vulnerable in society to ensure that they can access legal aid’. It seems to accept, however, that there are some who – at least in some circumstances – should receive legal aid who currently do not get it. The Paper states that the Government ‘will conduct a review into the thresholds for legal aid entitlement, and their interaction with … wider criteria’. This review will be completed by summer 2020.

In the interim there will be changes to eligibility for some public family law cases, to be introduced in summer 2019.

And, whilst the review is ongoing, the Government  will continue with current arrangements to passport all recipients of universal credit through the legal aid means test.

Addressing the problem that people do not know about their entitlement to legal aid, the Government states that it ‘will ensure that more people are aware of their entitlement to legal support – and will advertise its availability’. The stated aim is to launch the awareness programme by autumn 2019 – dealing not just with legal aid, but legal support more generally.

The Government plans to make some changes to protect the most vulnerable. It will expand the scope of legal aid to include separated migrant children in Spring 2019. It also plans to bring forward proposals to expand the scope of legal aid to cover special guardianship orders in private family law by Autumn 2019.

As regards Exceptional Case Funding, the Government plans to consider, by the end of 2019, whether the process for applying for Exceptional Case Funding can be simplified, and whether decisions can be reached more quickly. It will also consider whether it is necessary to introduce a new emergency procedure for urgent matters to access Exceptional Case Funding.

By Spring 2020, the Government will amend the rules relating to the ‘mandatory telephone gateway’ so that there can be immediate access to face-to-face advice in discrimination, debt and special educational needs cases. (The telephone option is retained.)

The new Paper accepts that ensuring people can access the right legal support at the right time may help people resolve problems more efficiently and effectively. There is research evidence demonstrating how problems, if left undiagnosed and unresolved, can escalate, cluster, and lead to damaging cycles that are hard to break. However, the Government states that there is limited comprehensive research as to what works best, when, and for whom. Further, whilst it is often suggested that early intervention leads to cost savings, the financial and economic benefits of early advice are difficult to quantify with accuracy. The Government’s response to this challenge is that it wants to pilot and evaluate several different forms of early legal support.

Thus,

  • it will work collaboratively with providers to develop web-based products which bring a range of legal support tools together in one place;
  • it will improve the signposting advice and support available from the existing specialist telephone service and test enhancements to this service;
  • it will use funding to encourage the delivery of legal support through technology;
  • recognising that a comprehensive service may offer people an opportunity to support themselves, the Government will work collaboratively with the legal and advice sector to evaluate the impact of legal support hubs;
  • it will pilot face-to-face early legal advice in a specific area of social welfare law and will evaluate this against technological solutions, bearing in mind costs; and
  • it will enhance the support offered to litigants in person.

All these interventions will be researched to assess what is the best way to help and support those who need it, and whom should be assisted in the provision of legal support. The intention is that there should be outcomes from these initiatives by the end of 2019.

The Government states that it will continue to work across departments to help to improve the quality of decision-making on legal rights. It has been noted on numerous occasions that if decisions are ‘right first time’ this should reduce the need to take cases on appeal.

Key to the modernisation of the justice system is the need to ensure that forms and systems are as simple and straightforward to use as possible, and that the courts and tribunals service enables people to resolve their conflicts as quickly and early as possible. The Government wants to generate momentum in this area, but acknowledges that this is a first step.

It will be important for the Government to continue open and collaborative working with experts over the coming years, identifying and evaluating new ideas. One specific commitment is that the Government plans to set up a Legal Support Advisory Network to make use of external expertise, shape research and evaluation proposals, and potentially explore new research opportunities and collaborations.

As a nod to the problem of whether or not there will be sufficient numbers of people entering this sector of the legal services market, the Government states it will ‘support practitioners to join the legal profession and continue to deliver high quality legal support to people across England and Wales long into the future’.

Specifically there will be a comprehensive review of the criminal legal aid fee schemes and structures, to be completed by Summer 2020.

The full paper can be accessed at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/777036/legal-support-the-way-ahead.pdf

See also Press Release at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-sets-out-new-vision-for-legal-support

 

 

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Standards of Criminal Advocacy: reports from the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board

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In November 2015, I noted in this blog the critical report by Sir Bill Jeffrey on standards of criminal advocacy. I also noted the consultation paper on the subject issued by the Government.

In June 2018, the SRA and the BSB published two reports on the subject.

The first report explores the views of the judiciary on the current quality, provision and regulation of advocacy within the criminal courts. The Judicial Perceptions Report, involved in-depth interviews with 50 High Court and circuit judges.

Key findings were:

  • While judges viewed the current quality of advocacy as competent, some felt that standards were declining in some areas, especially in relation to core courtroom skills such as case preparation and dealing with some witnesses.
  • Advocates’ skills in dealing with young and vulnerable witnesses are largely improving.
  • The most commonly cited barrier to high quality advocacy was advocates taking on cases beyond their level of experience.
  • Judges were uncertain over when, and how, they should report poor advocacy to regulators.

The second report arose from a Thematic Review of Criminal Advocacy, undertaken by the SRA. It was informed by data gathering and interviews with 40 solicitors’ firms actively involved in providing advocacy by solicitors within the courts.

Key findings of the SRA’s thematic review included:

  • Firms use in-house solicitors to support the vast majority of criminal work in magistrates’ courts and youth courts (90 percent), and 29 percent of work in the Crown Court.
  • The solicitors’ advocacy market is dominated by smaller firms and increasingly ageing individuals, while the number of new entrants to the market is falling.
  • Levels of complaints regarding advocacy work are relatively low (22 recorded complaints in two years across all 40 sample firms).
  • Approaches to training are inconsistent, with its delivery often infrequent, limited or not planned.

To me, the most concerning finding is that those doing this work are aging and are not currently being replaced by younger colleagues. It may be assumed that the cuts to criminal legal aid have had an impact on this.

Building upon the findings of both reports the SRA will be undertaking further work to understand the work of solicitor advocates.   The Bar Standards Board also intends to publish its strategy for assuring the quality of advocacy shortly.

The reports can be accessed at https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases-and-news/regulators-publish-reports-into-criminal-advocacy-standards/

or https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/how-we-work/reports/criminal-advocacy.page

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

October 15, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Paying for criminal defence advocacy

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Relations between Government and the Criminal Bar have not, in recent years been characterised by a great deal of warmth and mutual understanding. Indeed, criminal barristers went on strike recently against what they regarded as unfair policy on legal aid remuneration.

I am sure it would be overstating things to say that peace has now broken out between the Government and the Criminal Bar.  But a new Consultation Paper on the remuneration of criminal defence advocates (including solicitor advocates) has been published which seems to be the fruit of close working relationship between the two sides.

Certainly the chairman of the Bar Council has welcomed the paper’s publication and has urged advocates to support the recommendations set out in the paper.

One of the key aims of the new proposals is to try to ensure that payments reflect actual work done by advocates on behalf of their clients.

The proposals also seek to reflect the changing nature of criminal trial practice as the criminal courts’ efficiency programme continues to develop.

The proposals also aim to give a sense of career progress to those who undertake criminal defence advocacy. Pay should be higher as experience is gained and more serious cases are undertaken.

The recommendations are not based on any increase in the amount of money available for paying advocates; but they are designed to be a rational response to the changing face of criminal advocacy and to take a fresh look at a payments system that was last looked at 20 years ago.

The details of the consultation – which runs till early March 2017, are at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/proposals-to-reform-criminal-defence-advocates-pay-published

Written by lwtmp

January 23, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Criminal legal aid changes – recent decisions

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It is, to me, one of the curiosities of public life that U-turns are usually portrayed in the mass media as a sign of official/political incompetence. To me the idea that someone might change their mind because they had had second thoughts is a sign of maturity and intelligence.

Whether you regard the Secretary of State for Justice as incompetent or intelligent and mature, there is no doubt that his recent written statement to the House of Commons on the change of direction on Criminal Legal Aid reform is important.

The issues are:

1 Reductions in fees paid to legal aid applicants. They had been reduced in March 2014 by 8.5%. A similar sized reduction was planned for July 2015, but this was put on hold while the MoJ did not work to ensure that such a cut would be unlikely to reduce the quality of criminal advocacy. In his January 2016, Michael Gove has announced that there will be a further postponement of the proposed cut. “I have also decided to suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April 2016, the second fee cut which was introduced in July last year.” Whether or not that fee cut will be brought back into effect in April 2017 will depend on how the market for the provision of criminal legal aid services has developed in the meantime.

2 Consolidation of provision of criminal legal aid. There has long been a view in Government that there are too many soicitors’ firms offering criminal legal aid services. Various proposals have been made to reduce their number. The most draconian proposal was that existing criminal legal aid contract should be replaced by new contracts that would be awarded, following a tendering process, in which contracts would be awarded to those firms who submitted the lowest bids for legal aid work.

Unsurprisingly this was fiercely resisted by solicitors on the basis that, if implemented, this would be a ‘race to the bottom’ – standards would fall because services would only be offered by those charging the least.

Mr Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, came up with an alternative plan, known as ‘dual contracting’. Under the dual contracting system, two types of contract were to be awarded to criminal legal aid firms.

  • An unlimited number of contracts for ‘own client’ work based on basic financial and fitness to practise checks – in others words continued payment for representing existing and known clients.
  • And a total of 527 ‘duty’ contracts awarded by competition, giving firms the right to be on the duty legal aid rota in 85 geographical procurement areas around the country, with between 4 and 17 contracts awarded in each. In other words, these contracts would allow a limited number of firms the chance to represent new entrants to the criminal justice system.

The dual contracting model was  designed to meet concerns expressed by the legal profession about price competition.

A tender process under this proposed scheme did go ahead, but ended very badly with a lot of adverse publicity about both process and outcome.

The primary arguments against these alternative proposals were

  • Many solicitors firms feared that the award of a limited number of “dual” contracts – with a restriction therefore on who could participate in the duty legal aid rota would lead to a less diverse and competitive market.
  • Many barristers feared that the commercial model being designed by some solicitors’ firms would lead to a diminution in choice and potentially quality.
  • And, possibly the most compelling argument, many also pointed out that a process of natural consolidation was taking place in the criminal legal aid market, as crime reduced and natural competition took place.

In the face of considerable potential litigation (99 cases in the pipeline, plus a judicial review challenging the whole process), the Government has announced that this exercise will also be set aside. There will be a further review of the process towards consolidation early in 2017.

3 Quality of criminal advocacy. In the midst of all this, the report from Sir William Jeffrey on how to enhance the quality of criminal advocay has not been forgotten. Mr Gove stated:

I will also bring forward proposals to ensure the Legal Aid Agency can better support high quality advocacy. Furthermore, I intend to appoint an advisory council of solicitors and barristers to help me explore how we can reduce unnecessary bureaucratic costs, eliminate waste and end continuing abuses within the current legal aid system. More details will follow in due course.

I don’t think that criminal legal aid practitioners are completely off the hook as regards potential changes to how they work. But for the immediate future, things are clearer.

For Mr Gove’s written statement, go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/changes-to-criminal-legal-aid-contracting.

For further information on the Jeffrey Review, see this blog at https://martinpartington.com/2015/11/05/enhancing-the-quality-of-criminal-advocacy/

 

Written by lwtmp

February 10, 2016 at 6:45 pm

What is happening to legal aid: podcast with Ruth Wayte

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Ruth Wayte is the principal legal adviser with the Legal Aid Agency. In this podcast she reflects on the changes that have been taking place to the legal aid scheme. She acknowledges that legal aid practitioners have experienced significant cuts in the fees they receive for the work they do. But she also notes that there are still practitioners seeking contracts for work from the legal aid agency. Most applications to tender for work are well subscribed. She also comments on a number of the legal issues that have arisen in the courts, arising out of changes to the legal aid scheme.

You can hear her remarks at:

http://global.oup.com/uk/orc/law/els/partington14_15/student/podcasts/RuthWayte.mp3

Written by lwtmp

March 3, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Public defender service – expansion

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The Public Defender Service (PDS) was established in 2001 to offer an alternative to solicitors in private criminal legal aid practice. The service now operates out of 4 centres: Cheltenham Darlington, Pontypridd and Swansea. These offices operate as solicitors but the staff are employed by the Legal Aid Agency, rather than paid fees by the Agency.

In 2014, the scope of the PDS was expanded by the creation of PDS Advocates, described as “a team of 25 barristers and higher courts advocates including seven Queens Counsel with experience at every level of the criminal justice system [providing]… independent, high quality, professional advice and representation to accused persons throughout England and Wales.

“Amongst [the] team, [are] advocates who specialise in murder, fraud, historic and serious sexual offences, terrorism and Very High Cost Criminal Cases.

[The team] can be instructed to carry out work by any solicitors looking for representation for their clients in the Higher Courts of England and Wales [and] are able to operate nationally.”

This development occurred at a time when barristers were in significant conflict with the Ministry of Justice over rates of pay for criminal legal aid work and appears to have been a response to barristers refusing to take on some serious criminal trials.

For further details of the PDS go to http://publicdefenderservice.org.uk/

Written by lwtmp

September 26, 2014 at 11:44 am

What has happened to Legal Aid?

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The big changes to the legal aid scheme, designed to cut public expenditure on legal aid, were introduced in April 2013, following enactment of LASPO 2012.
The first Annual Report of the Legal Aid Agency has now been published. This provides more information on the direct impact this has had on the amount of legally aided work that has been undertaken in the first 12 months since the Act came into effect.

In summary:

• Total acts of assistance and spend – The LAA continued to fund advice, assistance and representation for eligible individuals across England and Wales by funding 1.8 million acts of assistance overall (Civil Legal Aid and Criminal Legal Aid). [2012-13: 2.3 million]. Total net expenditure was £1,709.5 million. [2012-13: £1,916.7 million].
• Number of providers – As at 31 March 2014 the LAA held 1,435 civil and 1,519 crime contracts [March 2013:1,899 civil and 1,599 crime contracts].
• Civil Legal Aid – The LAA funded 0.50 million Civil Legal Aid acts of assistance overall [2012-13: 0.93 million, a 46% decrease in the year]. Civil Legal Aid net expenditure was £800.9 million [2012-13: £941.6 million].
• Criminal Legal Aid – The LAA funded 1.32 million Criminal Legal Aid acts of assistance [2012-13: 1.36 million, a 3% decrease in the year]. Criminal Legal Aid spend was £908.6 million [2012-13: £975.1 million].

What these figures show is the dramatic impact the cuts in Legal Aid have had on civil legally aided matters. There have been huge falls, both in the numbers of acts of assistance, and in the numbers of those with civil legal aid contracts with the Legal Aid Agency. By comparison, criminal legal aid has suffered less, though well publicised actions in particular by the Bar indicate that the fees payable for legally aided work in crime have been subject to considerable constraint.

Lawyers will of course deplore these trends. But it has to be said that there is no indication of any political will to restore funding to the legal aid scheme. This appears to be the start of a new reality, a context in which rather different forms of service delivery to the public will have to be devised.

The LAA Annual report is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/legal-aid-agency-annual-report-and-accounts-2013-to-2014

Written by lwtmp

July 31, 2014 at 10:09 am