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Ideal Queen's Speech: Bar Council calls for legal aid to be top of the agenda

Ideal Queen's Speech: Bar Council calls for legal aid to be top of the agenda

Bar Council | Bar Council

5 min read Partner content

Ahead of the Queen’s speech next week the Bar Council urges the Government to improve legal aid provision in the UK.

"My Government will introduce a Bill to restore legal aid in civil and family law..."

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) means legal aid is no longer available for those in crisis with welfare, employment, clinical negligence, debt, or immigration issues, or most legal issues relating to family, housing or education.

Since LASPO, 400,000 fewer people per year are accessing legal advice for their problems and there has been a 30% year on year increase in cases where neither party is represented by a lawyer.

These ‘litigants in person’ are not representing themselves in court out of choice. They are doing so because no legal help is available. Those now left out of the legal aid loop are often among the most vulnerable people in society, facing potentially catastrophic challenges to their personal lives and with no means to pay for legal advice or representation. Through no fault of their own, litigants in person cause delays in court, adding to the costs faced by the over-burdened justice system, and without legal training and support they are often unable to do themselves justice.

"My Government will introduce a Bill to guarantee the provision of criminal legal aid..."

The Government is threatening to cut the criminal legal aid budget by a further 8.5% this year. In these financially austere times, savings must be made across all sectors, but this threat comes after a decade of cuts, leaving no fat, or even meat, to trim from our already stretched and struggling criminal justice system.

The pressure to drive down costs already means that defendants are not always represented by qualified legal professionals, but instead are assisted by interns and less qualified staff.

Since 2007, barristers working in the Crown Court, serving the court and their clients in the interests of the public, have experienced a cut in fees of 37% in real terms. These cuts are deeper than any other income cuts to public servants. If these cuts continue, the courts will be forced to rely on non-specialist advocates and unqualified lawyers to prosecute and defend.

Justice for victims of crime and defendants is at stake. They, and society, deserve better.

"My Government will introduce a Bill to remove the barriers that have restricted the ability of people to challenge the Government and public authorities when they act illegally, so they can be held properly to account for unlawful decision-making..."

Judicial review allows groups and individuals to challenge public authorities for unlawful decision-making. It is a vital component of our constitutional order and the rule of law.

Part 4 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill placed a number of barriers in the way of those seeking judicial review which has the effect of restricting access to justice and immunising the Government from legal challenge. This part of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill should be repealed.

"My Government will introduce a Bill to protect lawyer client communications from state surveillance..."

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 have allowed the police and security services to eavesdrop on legally privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients. The on-going Belhadj case this year highlighted how such breaches can lead to miscarriages of justice.

Confidentiality between lawyers and their clients is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to a fair hearing. A client must have no doubt as to the confidentiality of their conversations if they are to communicate to their lawyer the whole picture and all relevant circumstances of their case. If they hold information back because they fear that a public authority or security agency is snooping, the client cannot properly be represented. In a criminal case, this could put their very liberty at stake.

Legal Professional Privilege does not cover communications between lawyer and client where they are for the furtherance of criminal activity, but it is a centuries old feature of justice that the state respects that privilege, and it must be protected.

"My Government will introduce a Bill to support small businesses and accident victims..."

Small businesses forced to chase late payments and other debts through the courts are being hit by court fee hikes of up to 600%. Legislation was introduced in early 2015 imposing a 5% up-front fee of up to £10,000 on businesses and individuals bringing money claims such as late payments, debt and compensation. This will deter many small firms from trying to claim money they are owed, which can often be substantial sums, without which their viability as a business will be threatened. The same legislation will also act as a barrier for accident victims who must now pay enormous fees to gain access to the courts.

A Manifesto for Justice

 The Bar Council produced A Manifesto for Justicebefore the general election to encourage politicians to place justice higher up on the political agenda. The manifesto was produced in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, the Legal Action Group, the Law Centres Federation and AdviceUK.

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