Carol Storer reports back on the inaugural lecture of The Law Society’s 2019 thought leadership seminars with Lucy Frazer QC MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice
Christina Blacklaws, President of The Law Society, introduced the first lecture of this year’s series of thought leadership seminars and welcomed Lucy Frazer QC MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Christina referred to the government post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) which came out earlier this month. Legal aid is a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in society. Hundreds of thousands became ineligible when LASPO came into existence. The ramifications of the Act are being felt across public life.
The review was very comprehensive. The proposals to improve the legal aid system are the first positive proposals in the last twenty years. The Law Society hope that the changes will make it easier for ordinary people to qualify for legal aid and will work with the MoJ on proposals eg the means test and Christina flagged up the lack of profitability impacting on the viability of practices delivering legal aid work.
The Law Society fully supports working with MoJ on the increasing use of technology and currently partner with Barclays and others in a LawTech panel chaired by Christina and set up by government but industry led.
Lucy Frazer thanked The Law Society for their input into the review and thanked others in the room who had contributed.
The minister stressed the importance of the legal system, the rule of law and that the justice system is renowned across the world. The law is steeped in tradition but must embrace modernism. People recruit online, date online, send millions of messages by WhatsApp and Messenger. The law needs to embrace the changes.
Areas where the MoJ is promoting technology include court reform. The minister referred to her early life at bar – where once barristers received briefs in pink tape by post, they now receive emails and the pace is much greater – updates are sent sometimes daily.
There is an ambitious £1 billion investment in court reform to modernise with online services and digital working. The technology is designed around the needs of users and the aim is to be proportionate. Already there are online systems for probate, divorce and some road traffic offences. Over 100,000 people have interacted in this way.
- A supplier owed under £10,000 can sue and settle online. People can defend online up to this figure as well. Feedback is very positive.
- Divorce petitions can be issues online. The reject rate is down from 40% to 1%.
- Online social security tribunal judges able to contact participants.
- Video facilities will be used more. These reduce the need to travel.
- HMCTS has piloted video hearings in the tax tribunal.
The minister confirmed that there will always be a need for a physical court but the sector must seize the opportunities presented by technology.
How to best support individuals? Last month the MoJ launched its support programme.
- The Legal Advice Centre’s Cornwall Video Chat Service which provides remote advice in Cornwall.[v] There is also a webcam platform. Clients can make contact from their phone or computer. They can photo documents and send over.
- Advicenow pulls together the best advice resources and everything is written in plain English. There are eg template letters etc. The aim is to empowers users.
- There is an app to help PIP cases. It identifies the points to be flagged up and what the result should be.
- Barclays LawTech innovation – she spoke with them yesterday. LawTech companies can eg test products. They are working on smart contracts.
- There is a pilot for better ways to signpost people to the best advice. Already this has been proactive in some areas eg child arrangements and out of court settlements.
- She has been talking to Mencap about their Chatbot project. The first phase will be completed in April.
- MoJ want Lawtech to thrive. The Lord Chancellor set up the panel Christina chairs.
- Money has been provided for innovation and projects involving LawWorks and Islington Law Centre. There has been investment in Legal Beagles a free online forum.
- In the region of £600,000 was provided to the SRA to work on technological solutions for small businesses.
- They have provided funding for improving digital resource for separated families.
Lucy Frazer stressed that technology is a servant not a master. Last year the MoJ funded £1.6 billion in legal aid funding. It is imperative that this support continues. The LASPO review was informed and evidence based. There are commitments on scope and to improve legal aid.
- Reform how to obtain exceptional case funding.
- Changes to legal aid for guardianship cases.
- Changes to the means test. There will be a pilot on expanding early advice for their legal problems. Money has to be spent effectively.
The minister stressed the need to expand global links. An illustration is the need to build judicial links internationally and she applauded the work already being carried out.
The government will continue to encourage tech solutions and innovative solutions.
There were several mentions of the Legal Education Foundation (LEF) which has funded a number of the innovative projects discussed.
Questions and Answers
Q Eileen Pereira, PSU, raised the journeys of LIPs. How can the MoJ prevent duplication and waste of resources?
A The minister said this was a good point eg Citizens Advice and Shelter doing work on this. The government is offering £5million. People will bid and across government, officials will evaluate projects. In that way, the government will know what people are doing and will share information. They will hold a seminar for users, Lawtech companies, law centres etc. and bring people together so they know who is working on what.
Q Natalie Byrom, LEF – it is good that there is evidence-based decision-making. She asked about evaluation.
A The evaluation of the court reform programme is on a day to day basis. The MoJ keep tweaking the systems based on feedback. And there will be a panel evaluating reform. HMCTS is now considering the criteria for evaluation and will announce when the evaluation will take place in due course.
Q Stephen Davis, Tuckers – The Law Society heat map shows that the average age of duty solicitors is 47. Fees have reduced. There is an issue about long term viability. The MoJ has failed to secure tenders in social welfare work. Has the MoJ sufficient expertise to ensure the viability of the profession?
A The minister recognises the need for a viable profession for solicitors and barristers. The profession needs to be attractive for recruitment and retention. The review was published. They read the TLS response, all other responses and met many representative bodies. They have started the next stage of the review process. Social welfare law – it is important to work out how users access advice and they recognise that face-to-face solutions are important. The MoJ will pilot face-to-face advice possibly housing and compare with tech solutions.
Q Jenny Beck, co-chair LAPG – there is a problem as to how to gather data from practitioners and MoJ. You cannot draw the invisible. Thousands cannot access and digital solutions are not appropriate. Concern about evidence gathering.
A The minister thanked LAPG for input. She accepts that there are evidence gaps. There has been the assessment and there is an action plan. They did acknowledge the lack of data and will collect what they can:
- by analysis of pilots. How affect clients? They will also capture the effect on other departments.
- the court reform evaluation will monitor client journey eg failure rates, how many cases on what subjects and results.
They are conscious of the need to collect data. But some issues are not driven by data eg what are the perceptions of fairness? MoJ has had round tables to understand what vulnerable clients feel and with support groups who support vulnerable people.
Q Sara Plover, city lawyer said that many firms in the city are doing pro bono work – what more does the MoJ want?
A The minister felt it was not her job to say. The MoJ would be happy to co-ordinate. MoJ could help set up partnerships. Christina said the legal aid community was very grateful so offered to talk further to pro bono providers.
Q Emily Weidner, The Law Society – the divorce applications on Christmas Day. Was that really good?
A The MoJ want to make it easier for people to take cases forward. As regards family initiatives, the government is about to respond to no fault divorce.
Q David Marshall, Anthony Gold asked about the evidence from a paper by economists Fenn & Rickman referenced in the Part 2 response that there had been about a 20% fall in damages paid by defendants in clinical negligence cases post-LASPO (that is before any deduction of success fees from damages).
A The minister did not directly address that. She said that most respondents thought the Part 2 reforms were working well, with the exception of concerns as to how DBAs were working in practice, and that there was no evidence of any fall in claims numbers and took that to mean that access to justice had been retained, but that it was difficult to assess beyond that. She did not deal directly with the point about damages, nor with why this hard quantitative evidence had not informed the policy.
Q Mona, trainee at Lovells – it can be difficult for people to use app-based systems. How is the MoJ tackling this?
A The minister has been to tribunals, is liaising with HMCTS. It would help if departments get decisions right first time. They want people not to have to go to court. But if they do, then first-tier tribunal judges can review the documentation and make early decisions. The process is being tried now so should improve issues. There has been recruitment to appoint more judges.
For those who think technology is not the answer she gave the example that many young people contact the Samaritans by text rather than ring.
Q Carol Storer, Chair of The Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee asked about now – legal aid and courts – some people are enduring terrible experiences – what is the MoJ doing now as opposed to in the future? For example, people who need advice now with nowhere to go or people involved in court cases in person. They may go to court and there is nowhere to get any help if court offices are closed
A Don’t dismiss £1.6bn being spent on legal aid. What is the best way to help people and at what stage? LASPO review proposes imminent change.
Q Lord Mackay – asked about the quality of judiciary.
A The judiciary are very important. The MoJ need to work with the profession to attract more applicants.
Q David Hodson, International Family Law Group. All family jurisdictions. We say mediation must be voluntary. Other jurisdictions have or are looking at compulsory mediation. Should the MoJ?
A The minister has met many mediation organisations and are working with them.
Q Dr Natalie Byrom – can research community do more? Lots of people if moved from court process to mediation may not be able to get result they should. How monitor?
A There is a fantastic team at the MoJ and she welcomes support ideas and help. They are doing a lot of work on family law eg:
- Public family law working with another MP. Cross-government working is essential.
- The domestic abuse bill is going through Parliament now.
- There has been a second reading in parliament of the FGM private members bill.
Christina Blacklaws thanked the minister and urged people to talk to her and The Law Society staff if anyone wants to be involved in any of this work.