Lord Bach’s Access to Justice Commission has published its final report, available here. It is a detailed and thoughtful report, which should provoke further debate about the impact on access to justice – and particularly those who can’t get it – following the reforms of recent years. There is a lengthy list of recommendations, which fall into three main categories:
- The creation of a new statutory enforceable “right to justice” and the creation of a Justice Commission
- Reform of the legal aid scheme, including widening and simplifying the means test and contributions, increasing legal aid scope to restore most family, some immigration, and cases involving children, as well as reforms to judicial review, inquest and exceptional case funding, and replacing the LAA with an independent body and simplifying administration
- Wider and better public legal education and a universal advice and information portal.
Sir Henry Brooke, the retired Court of Appeal judge, was one of the commissioners. Since the publication of the report he has posted a series of blogs, well worth reading, looking at some of the background to the Commission’s recommendations.
We’ve covered elsewhere the key LAA announcement – the timetable for the 2018 civil contracts tender – but there are a couple of other issues that’s it’s worth making sure didn’t get overlooked in the holiday season.
LAA online services – including CCMS, eforms, CWA, CCLF and the management information service – are accessed via the LAA portal. The portal is being upgraded on 11 September. It doesn’t seem that there will be a major overhaul of the look and functionality of the systems. But the LAA promises increased stability and faster log in times.
Crucially, following the upgrade all users will have to reset their passwords. In order to do that, they need to know their current passwords. So you should make sure that all users in your office know their current passwords and have checked they still work before 5 September – which is the last day for requesting a reset before the upgrade. More information here.
Meanwhile, online billing for Crown Court work (both AGFS and LGFS) will become mandatory from 31 October – more here.
Immigration practitioners looking for extra matter starts, including those that didn’t get any in the recent supplementary matter starts process, have been reminded that you can ask your contract manager for more matter starts when needed. The LAA has also issued news alerts drawing attention to the rules on claiming hourly rates and on refunding client travel in immigration cases. News articles like this can be a useful reminder of how the LAA sees the rules following feedback of difficulties, but also an indicator of potential audit activity – so are something immigration practitioners will want to take note of.
The Law Society has issued a new practice note setting out the requirements of the legal aid contracts and of professional conduct in deciding whether to accept instructions in criminal legal aid cases.
It reminds practitioners that, in the main, only duty solicitors acting as such are required to take on work – and then only of the types prescribed in the contract.
It also sets out the relevant professional conduct obligations. These apply both at the level of individual cases – such as the duty to advise of the availability of legal aid before accepting private instructions – but also at the level of practice management. There is a particular obligation on COLPs and COFAs to ensure their practices are managed responsibly, which includes financial prudence.
There is nothing new in the practice note but it comes at a time when changes to Crown Court fees and to court appointed work are under consideration (though no decisions will be made until after the general election). It reminds practitioners that they are not required to take on all cases and that there may be circumstances where there is a professional duty not to do so. The bar took a similar approach some years ago when it deemed criminal fees not to be a proper fee, thus exempting these cases from the cab rank rule.
Filed under Costs, Crime, Policy
The major parties have now published their manifestos for the forthcoming general election. This is what they have to say about legal aid.
The Conservative manifesto says:
- Publicly-funded advocates will have specialist training in handling victims before taking on serious sexual offences cases.
- To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families over the last twenty years is not repeated, we will introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests
- We will strengthen legal services regulation and restrict legal aid for unscrupulous law firms that issue vexatious legal claims against the armed forces
The Labour manifesto says:
- Labour will immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts. The shameful consequences of withdrawal have included a requirement for victims of domestic abuse to pay doctors for certification of their injuries. Labour’s plans will remove that requirement. At the same time, we will legislate to prohibit the cross examination of victims of domestic violence by their abuser in certain circumstances.
- We will reintroduce funding for the preparation of judicial review cases. Judicial review is an important way of holding government to account. There are sufficient safeguards to discourage unmeritorious cases.
- We will review the legal aid means tests, including the capital test for those on income-related benefits.
- Labour will consider the reinstatement of other legal aid entitlements after receiving the final recommendations of the Access to Justice Commission led by Lord Bach.
The Lib Dem manifesto says the party will:
- Conduct an urgent and comprehensive review of the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act on access to justice, particularly funding for social welfare appeals, and domestic violence and exceptional cases
- Secure further funding for criminal legal aid from sources other than the taxpayer, including insurance for company directors, and changes to restraint orders.
UKIP and the Green Party make no mention of legal aid in their manifestos.
The LAA has extended the deadline for accepting crime contracts and securing slots on the next duty rotas by two days.
The deadline was due to expire on Monday 20th March, but many firms have reported that they have still not received their contract schedule – and so could not accept and return it.
The LAA has therefore extended the deadline until 22nd March. It posted this on its website this afternoon:
Contract schedules for organisations that have completed verification have now been uploaded and are ready to accept. Unfortunately, this process has taken longer than anticipated and we apologise for any inconvenience.
Accordingly, we have extended the time for you to accept these contracts and secure your rota slots. You now have until 5pm on Wednesday 22 March to accept.
If you have not received a contract schedule and have not received a communication from us about any further delay with your contract documentation, you should contact us via the Bravo E-tendering system and headline your message ‘contract query’.
While the time has been extended, we would advise that you accept your contract as soon as possible in case you encounter any technical difficulties.
We are continuing to upload crime contract schedules for all those organisations which will be included on duty rotas in April 2017. We are aiming to complete this today.
If you have not received a contract schedule by 5pm today (16 March 2017) and consider that you should have, please check Bravo as we may have already communicated with you about this.
If you consider that your contract schedule is still outstanding please notify Bravo e-tendering system heading your message ‘Contract query’.
If you are having trouble accessing your documents in CWA please refer to the guidance available on our website.
Please also ensure that you have set up the requisite number of ‘designated signatories’ on CWA. Guidance on how to allocate a designated signatory in CWA is available on our website.