Tag Archives: shelter

Social welfare advice deserts to widen

Justice for All has calculated that over 30% of local authority areas will have so few cases left that there will be less than one housing adviser for the entire region once the scope cuts in the legal aid bill come into effect. A third of the country will in effect have no social welfare legal aid advice provision. I spoke to Jon Robins about the impact of this research on Shelter and its clients; his article is on the Guardian’s law website.

There is still time to use Justice for All’s handy (and very quick) tool to email your MP about the effect of the legal aid cuts before the third reading debate on Monday. Please do so, and urge others to as well.



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Legal aid reform (1): overview

When the government published the final version of its reform plans last week, it actually published a number of key documents. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill has been through its first and second reading in Parliament and is now in the committee stage. As well as the bill, it released a response to the consultation and a schedule of revised fees, as well as impact assessments, a reply to the Justice Select Committee report, and a paper about litigants in person.

The key documents are the consultation response, fees schedule and the bill. The consultation response contains the detail of the proposals, and the bill sets out those that need primary legislation. The proposals can be grouped into 5 broad areas:

  1. Scope – the provisions on scope are within the bill
  2. Eligibility – the bill makes provision for regulations to govern eligibility under the new scheme. It is not yet clear whether the government also propose to change the existing eligibility rules for the current scheme, which could be done relatively easily by amending the regulations
  3. Fees – the government has announced cuts to civil, family and crime fees. The civil and criminal fee cuts will take effect from October 2011, the family from February 2012.
  4. Administration and governance – the bill abolishes the LSC and creates a Director of Legal Aid Casework, to whom various functions and responsibilities are given.
  5. Establishment of a telephone gateway, initially for limited areas of law.

The bill itself is in 4 parts – legal aid, litigation funding, sentencing, and technical provisions. There are also 16 schedules, of which the key ones for legal aid are the first 5 (schedules 6 and 7 concern criminal costs from central funds in mainstream and services prosecutions).

The current scheme

The current legal aid scheme is governed by the Access to Justice Act 1999, and various regulations made under it, together with contracts entered into by the Legal Services Commission using their powers under the Act. The LSC itself was created by the 1999 Act. Paragraph 49 of Schedule 5 of the bill repeals all parts of the Access to Justice Act dealing with legal aid, and clause 36 of the bill abolishes the LSC itself.

Therefore, the bill does not simply amend the existing legal aid scheme; it abolishes the entire scheme, together with the body set up to administer it, and replaces it with a brand new legal aid scheme administered from within the Ministry of Justice. This is not just reform or amendment; in effect, legal aid – or its statutory underpinning – has been torn up and re-created from scratch.

The Access to Justice Act civil legal aid scheme is a broad scheme; unless a court or tribunal or type of case is excluded by Schedule 2, it is covered. Similarly, all areas of criminal law are by default included within the criminal scheme, as are a number of “quasi-criminal” civil proceedings (ASBOs and the like) which are added either by statute or regulation.

The new scheme

The new scheme proposed under the bill, by contrast, is an exclusive scheme. Schedule 1 of the bill lists various types of civil proceedings; those listed are within the scope of legal aid, but anything not listed is out of scope.  Clause 8(2) of the bill allows the Lord Chancellor to amend the schedule to exclude further areas of law, but not to bring more areas back in scope. So in future civil and family legal aid can be further restricted by regulation, but can only be expanded by Act of Parliament.

Criminal legal aid is available for criminal investigations (clause 12) and criminal proceedings (clause 13). The definition of criminal proceedings is basically the same as in s12 Access to Justice Act, and includes a similar power to prescribe other proceedings. It is this power that has been used under the current scheme to bring quasi-criminal civil cases within criminal legal aid, most recently last week. As regulations to be made under the bill have not yet been published, it is not known whether the current list in Reg 3 of the Criminal Defence Service (General) (No 2) Regulations 2001 will simply be carried over.

What happens next

The LSC has already announced the implementation of fee cuts – 3rd October for civil and crime, and February 2012 for family and housing with family. There has been no announcement yet as to when the eligibility changes take effect, but this could happen either within the current scheme or in the implementation of the new scheme.

The bill will continue its passage through Parliament and seems unlikely to receive Royal Assent before next spring. The tendering process for new family and family with housing contracts to take effect from February 2012 is currently being consulted on, but these are Access to Justice Act, not new-style contracts. The earliest a tendering process under the new law could happen is spring / summer 2012, making the earliest implementation date for new-style contracts, and thus scope cuts, autumn 2012.

Further reading

Over the next few days we will publish further analysis of key provisions of the reform programme and links to those posts are below.

See also our summary of the proposals and the fees announcement. See also responses by Sound off for Justice, Justice for All, the Bar Council, Shelter, and Citizens Advice. There are good posts about specific subject areas on Nearly Legal (housing) and Pink Tape (family), and an overview in the Gazette. Baroness Hale’s Hodge Lecture on access to justice is also worth reading, as is Professor Richard Moorhead’s broader view.

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Clarke announces £20 million for the NfP sector

In the second reading debate on the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill, Ken Clarke announced there would be £20 million to help the ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ of advice services in this financial year.

He also said that the government is mindful of the impact of the legal aid reforms beyond this financial year, and would ‘consider the issues’ further.

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A Day in the Life

A Shelter solicitor, Peter Szoltysek, has written a piece for Inside Housing magazine describing a typical day in the life of a housing lawyer, to which I have added a short note summarising the key changes proposed to social welfare legal aid by the government. It’s a great reminder of the important work funded by legal aid, and depressing to note that several of his clients would no longer get the help they need. For all the government’s protestations, repeated most recently by Jonathan Djanogly on You and Yours yesterday, that they want to retain legal aid for the most important cases, Peter reminds us of the importance of dealing with the causes of the whole problem not just the immediate symptoms. The client he represents in possession proceedings would still get legal aid for the court hearing, but to what purpose if Shelter couldn’t also deal with the underlying housing benefits issue? If all advice on welfare benefits is taken out of scope, securing an adjournment just postpones the inevitable instead of – as now – buying time to put things right. A great example of the short-sightedness of the reform package.

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