In a famous advert from the 80s, Maureen Lipman picked up the phone to caution her distraught grandson that he could never be a failure if he had an “ology”. It was perhaps in memory of that fine advice that the Lord Chancellor appeared before the House of Commons Justice Select Committee on Wednesday morning. For the first time, the language of ideology was openly placed at the heart of the Government’s approach to the reform of legal aid.
Most of the legal profession is familiar with the controversy of the Government’s latest raft of suggestions for reform of legal aid, in the Transforming Legal Aid consultation paper. JUSTICE and many others have raised substantial concerns about the Government’s approach. The changes proposed to the provision of criminal legal aid will drastically limit the ability of people accused of crimes by the State to access quality legal advice that they can trust. This will increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice and may make the criminal justice system as a whole more expensive, and less fair, as more people attempt to represent themselves.
Tan & Anor v Law & Anor (2013) – Currently available on Lawtel 25/6/2013 and Westlaw, BAILII link to follow
The absence of legal representation for defendants to an action for debt who contended they could not speak English resulted in the High Court granting an application that the trial be adjourned for a second time. The judgment is a good example of the interaction of Article 6 ECHR (right to a fair trial) with the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR).
The decision by Judge Burrell QC obviously turns on its own facts. But the absence of legal aid, the rise in litigants in person, and the increasing number of persons in this country for whom English is not their first language (or indeed their language at all) mean that this is not likely to be the last such case.
According to the President of the Supreme Court, the judiciary not only has a right but an obligation “to speak out on matters concerning the rule of law.” In recent months, it is a duty from which Lord Neuberger has not shirked, and last night’s lecture to the Institute of Government was no exception. Its focus was the importance of legal aid, which Neuberger described through the prism of the UK’s constitutional set-up and the respective roles of the legislature, executive and judiciary within it.
This is not the first time that the UK’s most senior judge has intervened in the debate surrounding the Transforming Legal Aid consultation, which closed on 4 June. Back in March, he warned that proposals intended to save £350 million a year by 2015 could end up costing the Government more, with greater numbers of litigants appearing in court without legal assistance, and longer hearings.
145 barristers on the Attorney General’s Panel of Counsel have signed a letter seeking that the Government to rethink its plans for reform of Legal Aid. I was one of the signatories. The letter is reproduced on the Legal Aid Changes blog.
The letter relates specifically to Judicial Review, which is an area in which Panel counsel practise regularly. Here is a taster:
We consider that the proposals in the Consultation Paper will undermine the accountability of public bodies to the detriment of society as a whole and the vulnerable in particular. Those who are reliant on legal aid are most likely to be at the sharp end of the exercise of government power and are least likely to be able to fund judicial review for themselves, or effectively act in person.
One of the most contentious proposals in the Consultation Paper on the transforming legal aid is the removal of client choice in criminal cases. Under the proposals contracts for the provision of legal aid will be awarded to a limited number of firms in an area. The areas are similar to the existing CPS areas. The Green Paper anticipates that there will be four or five such providers in each area. Thus the county of Kent, for example, will have four or five providers in an area currently served by fifty or so legal aid firms. Each area will have a limited number providers that will offer it is argued economies of scale.
In order to ensure that this arrangement is viable the providers will be effectively guaranteed work by stripping the citizen of the right to choose a legal aid lawyer in criminal cases. Under the new scheme every time a person needs advice they will be allocated mechanically by the Legal Aid Agency to one of the new providers. It may not be the same firm the person has used before. The citizen will therefore not be able to build up a relationship with a solicitor. From a human rights perspective this, of course, begs the question would the removal of choice be compatible with the ECHR?
N.K.M v. Hungary, ECtHR, 14 May 2013, read judgment
Those of a certain age will remember when top tax rates in the UK were 98%. This was the marginal rate of tax in this successful claim that such taxation offended Article 1 of the 1st Protocol (A1P1) – the peaceful enjoyment of possessions. But the very wealthy seeking to safeguard their bankers bonuses may not obtain too much comfort from the Strasbourg ruling, as the facts were fairly extraordinary.
The applicant had been a Hungarian civil servant for 30 years until her dismissal (with many others) in July 2011. Long-standing rules gave her 8 months severance pay. The 98% tax rate was introduced in 2010; it was then successfully challenged in the Hungarian Constitutional Court. On the day of the Court’s adverse judgment, the tax was re-enacted, but this time the 98% rate was applied to pay exceeding 3.5m forints – c. £10,000 – and, further, only where the earnings came out of specified categories of public sector employees.
A fresh challenge in the Constitutional Court annulled the retrospective effect of this law, but could not as a matter of jurisdiction review the substantive aspects of the tax. So the applicant went to Strasbourg to challenge the tax when deducted from her pay.
Child Poverty Action Group, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 2579 (Admin) (17 July 2012) – read judgment
The High Court has ruled that the government acted unlawfully by removing the Child Poverty Commission, an advisory body set up under the Child Poverty Act 2010 . They had also acted beyond their powers by preparing a child poverty strategy without having requested and having regard to the advice of that Commission. But government is free to formulate new policy and as such there was nothing irrational about the strategy itself.
There is of necessity a great deal of statutory construction in this judgment which makes for dry reading. But the ruling is an important reassessment of the principles of judicial review that have taken root since the power of the courts to intervene in government decision making was reinforced in Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission  2 A.C. 147. This ruling, as every law student knows, established that a public body acts unlawfully, both in the narrow sense of acting outside its jurisdiction, and where such jurisdiction was wrongly exercised. This means that courts may intervene not just where a governmental act is unlawful under an express provision of the statute but also where the decision or policy, although authorised by statute, has been made in breach of a rule of public law. Continue reading