Public fear legal aid cuts will lead to wrongful convictions, poll finds
Bar Council survey shows 71% fear innocent defendants will be found guilty if forced to choose cheapest lawyer
The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who plans to reduce the annual criminal legal aid budget by £220m. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
More than 70% of the public fear that further cuts to legal aid could result in innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit, according to an opinion poll released by the Bar Council.
The survey, commissioned by the organisation which representsbarristers in England and Wales, found that those most likely to be affected and most at risk were the poorest.
The research was carried out in response to proposals from the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to reduce the annual criminal legal aid budget by £220m. Under the plans, the cost of judicial reviews will rise steeply, lawyers' fees will be slashed and criminal legal aid contracts awarded through competitive tendering. The consultation closes on 4 June.
An early day motion in the Commons condemning the plans has been signed by 60 MPs so far, mostly Labour. It deplores the abolition of defendants' right to choose their solicitor and warns that the changes will "reduce the quality of legal representation to the lowest standard possible".
The Bar Council opinion poll, carried out by ComRes, found that seven in 10 (71%) respondents were concerned that cuts to legal aid could lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit if forced to use the cheapest defence lawyer available.
It also found that two-thirds (67%) agreed that legal aid was a price worth paying for living in a fair society. The poorest would be hit hardest by the proposed changes, according to 75% of those polled.
More than two-thirds (68%) of those questioned agreed with the proposition that at less than 0.5% of annual government spending, "legal aid is a worthwhile investment in our basic freedoms".
The lawyer for Stephen Lawrence’s family today warned that legal aid cuts planned by the Government will be a “disaster” for black Londoners.
Imran Khan said the £220 million of cuts would send equality “backwards” by leaving ethnic minority defendants struggling to find adequate representation. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling wants to reduce fees for lawyers, under reforms that will also see defendants on legal aid lose the ability to choose their solicitor.
Mr Khan said the changes would make it difficult to take on complex and costly cases, such as the Lawrence murder, which could produce changes that benefit all Londoners. He claimed the new system would lead to large law firms offering “bulk buying” prices that would force many ethnic minority solicitors out of business
Survey finds two in three people oppose legal aid cuts
More than two-thirds of British people believe that the innocent will be convicted of crimes they did not commit if there are cuts to criminal legal aid, according to a poll.
Three-quarters of those interviewed were convinced it was the poorest that would be hit hardest by the proposed changes. The results of the ComRes poll for the Bar Council come ahead of a protest by hundreds of barristers and solicitors – including the former Blur drummer David Rowntree – outside Downing Street tomorrow.
The Government is currently consulting on proposed changes to criminal legal aid. People would lose their right to choose their own lawyer and work would be put out to competitive tendering where the lowest bidders would win, regardless of their experience.
In stark contrast to the Government’s claims that the legal aid system has lost credibility with the public, the poll found that 71 per cent were concerned that cuts to legal aid could lead to the innocent being convicted of crimes.
Sir Anthony Hooper said judges across England and Wales were “extremely worried” about proposals to auction off criminal defence work to the lowest bidder, which could see the system run by corporations like G4S and Eddie Stobart.
Speaking publicly for the first time since he retired in September, Sir Anthony said: “It is very difficult for serving judges to be critical of Government policies but I can tell you I have spoken with them and they are extremely concerned.
“The purpose of our criminal justice system is to acquit the innocent and convict the guilty. This requires a competent prosecutor, competent defence advocate and competent judge. If you take any of these elements away, the results will be costly and potentially disastrous, with innocent people being convicted and potentially dangerous individuals wrongly acquitted.”
Under the Transforming Legal Aid proposals, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling aims to shave £220million from the £2billion legal aid budget by tendering contracts to 400 firms and mega law shops around the country.
Chris Grayling's ill-thought-out plans could devastate confidence in our legal system
Cuts to legal aid could cause more miscarriages of justice. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP
In these straitened times, the legal system is not exempt from the need to find savings, but we all have a duty to achieve that in ways that do not put at risk the integrity of our justice system. Because it involves lawyers,cuts to legal aid do not often generate the same level of public anxiety as cuts to other types of public services.
But they way the government is going about this should worry us all. Legal aid is crucial in ensuring those truly guilty of crimes are convicted, after due process, and those innocent are able to clear their names, by ensuring that access to legal representation is available for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Tinkering with this system should be only done with great care as the removal of an individual's liberty is one of the state's most important powers.
Major miscarriages of justice have occurred because of the absence of proper legal representation. These have happened within living memory, but Chris Grayling either doesn't know this or has forgotten. We cannot afford to have the confidence of the public, victims and witnesses in our justice system undermined because the wrong people are being found guilty and the real criminals are wandering the streets.
Being reliant on legal aid is probably inconceivable to most of us. But this is no different from other branches of the welfare state established at the same time as our legal aid system – being diagnosed with a major illness and needing the NHS, or losing a job and needing the support of social security. If you were arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offence or facing a trial, you would not want a second-rate system, or be forced to accept whatever representation you are given regardless of quality.
The current justice secretary likes to have us believe that this is about a lot of ambulance-chasing overpaid lawyers, milking the taxpayer. But for many of those working in this area, it couldn't be further from the truth. They don't go into this bit of the legal profession to make their millions, instead work in an unglamorous yet rewarding area. The reality is that Grayling is making the most of exploiting the legal profession's image problem as cover for his real priority – demonstrating to his own backbenchers his credentials as a budget-slasher.
Here's how long the DWP are keeping their 'customers' waiting:
Number of claimants
Duration of claim
0 to 3 months
3 to 6 months
6 months to 1 year
1 year to 2 years
2 to 5 years
What an appalling standard of customer service....
The rules allow for an extension beyond the 13 week period where the Work Capability Assessment (usually conducted by Atos) is not carried out within time or where the claimant is appealing against a decision that they are fit for work. These figures show cracks in the system caused by delayed Atos assessments and large numbers of claimants appealing against decisions they aren't happy with.
DWP figures for the November 2012 quarter show that of 159,900 claimants coming off the Employment & Support Allowance in between September - November 2012 a staggering 92,180 were in the Assessment Phase, the long waiting periods provide a clue as to why, it's also telling that 34,030 of these claimants were classified as unfit for work by their doctors (it's a condition of entering the assessment phase in all new claim cases) on the grounds of mental health & behavioural problems - many of them simply can't cope with the prolonged assessment phase. Of those 'exiting' the allowance in the same quarter in the Assessment Phase 70,030 had made no previous claim to the allowance, 16,940 had made 1 or more previous claim and 5,220 had made 2 or more.
The numbers passing through the Assessment Phase is clearly an escalating problem as shown in the claimant count for the four quarters from February 2012 to November 2012.
Vast numbers passing through the assessment maze
Number of ESA claims
Numbers in Assessment Phase
These figures show that each quarter the numbers subject to assessment continue to grow rather than decrease, the numbers 'capture' those in each quarter illustrating how a substantial size of the claimant count is continually made up of those waiting to be assessed.
When compared with the numbers coming off Employment and Support Allowance you get an indication why the DWP is struggling with reducing the claimant count. Of course there are still large numbers coming off older incapacity benefits but they are only relevant to ESA once converted to the new allowance.
The numbers coming off ESA
Number of claimants coming off ESA each quarter
It's simply not proportional to have 424,00 and 494,000 continually waiting in the assessment stages unless there is a significant backlog or cases simply aren't getting sorted out.
If the DWP was anywhere near it's 13 week assessment window with no backlog the number of new entries would more or less equal the assessment phase for the same quarter.
The only exception is when a claimant enters straight in to the Work Related Activity Group or Support Group from a previous incapacity benefit conversion claim. We can partially identify these cases from the DWP data base as follows:
Incapacity to ESA conversions or 'migrations'.
It's not down to people transferred from incapacity
Work Related Activity Group
The above claimants do not represent the numbers of conversions coming on to ESA each quarter, they represent the numbers who are actually on (which could include some who joined in the same quarter) ESA at each relevant quarter. What we know (because of the way the ESA rules work) is that all of claimants in the migrated figures shown above who appear in the Assessment Phase are appealing against a fit for work decision. What can be seen is that number of migrated claimants over the year has risen from 206,210 in February 2012 to 546,880 - an increase of 340,670.
It's a comparatively low proportion of the overall number of ESA entries which are shown below and come to 1,143,290 over the year broken down as follows:
Huge numbers are now being churned around and around as new claims rise
Number of ESA on flows
Unfortunately the DWP statistics do not enable you to ascertain how many of these 'on flows' are migrated claims but the rise in the migrated claim count (340,670) over the year tells us that backlog of cases awaiting assessment pre-existed the relatively small migration influx.
Using the migration claimant count we can work out that during the year 802,620 new ESA claims were not related to the process of migration - you have to ask why so many?
More to come on length of time on ESA and number of claims. In the next section we'll take a look at why so far more new claims are being made than converted over from incapacity.
".Legal aid cuts hit the vulnerable May 17 2013 By Hannah Bewley
CUTS to legal aid services are having a devastating effect on the most vulnerable people in Brent and will leave them ‘disadvantaged’, according to an advice service.
Legal aid funding was dramatically cut by the coalition government from April 1 and, coupled with other changes to welfare systems, disadvantaged people in the borough are now ‘on their own’.
Ian Kane, coordinator of Brent Community Law Centre, in High Road, Willesden, said: “We are getting more and more queries from people who we can’t help. People are more strung out because they are more desperate and they get angry and these people are left high and dry, there is no one to help them.”
Brent Council continues to fund the telephone advice line and deals with 5,000 people each year. They previously offered advice for housing, debt, welfare benefits and immigration, but now only a small area of housing advice is given, such as if a resident is at risk of homelessness or their life is at risk.
Brent Community Law Centre used to assist 400 housing cases each year, but now their funding is limited to 100 cases.
They work in partnership with Brent Citizen’s Advice Bureau and the Private Tenants Rights Group and, in total, they can deal with 400 case between them – down from 1,200.
Mr Kane said: “We are desperately trying everything we can and we are looking at ways of raising funds. The government has pulled so much funding that we can’t go to the traditional sources as they are over-stretched with applications. It is taking away people’s right to justice and their access to justice.”
The law centre has lost three full-time members of staff.
CAB is also undergoing changes and four full-time advisers are being asked to reapply for a reduced number of positions, but it is unclear how many will be taken on...................."
Hello, I'm currently working on a Housing file where the client has been asked to pay a contribution of £70 per month towards his case as his income is deemed too high by the LAA. Unfortunately, he has many transfers into his account from a friedn to buy online credits and they have classed this as income even though we have a statement to confirm it isn't support to the client...
The clients file is due to be closed soon as the other side have agreed to pay costs.
I was just wondering, as the other side are paying costs will this cover the clients contribution? And is there any way of coming to an agreement with the LAA to postpone charges until the other side have agreed costs? (currently ongoing) The first payment is due on 28th May.
Post by nickd (Mylegal) on May 20, 2013 10:11:38 GMT
Jobseekers and benefits data release postponed by DWP
Work and pensions department's figures to show how many people have lost benefits under new sanctions regime
Patrick Wintour, political editor The Guardian, Sunday 19 May 2013 1
Critics say the public needs independent figures to compare with claims by the government. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
The Department for Work and Pensions has delayed publication of the first set of official statistics detailing the extra number of jobless claimants losing benefits as a result of a tougher sanctions regime introduced by the coalition in October.
The DWP said there were "some significant doubts about the quality of the new regime statistics" due to have been published this week, adding it was not possible to give a date when they would be in a form fit to print.
Ministers have also suspended publication of figures relating to employment and support allowance.
The DWP introduced the tougher benefits regime last October, including longer periods off benefits for failing to be fully available for work.
The delayed publication of the figures, which cover the period from 22 October 2012 to the end of February 2013, means the public has no independent way of judging the effects of tighter sanctions.
It also means it is impossible to discern the effect of the tougher regime on the falling number of jobseeker's allowance (JSA) claimants. The DWP has been repeatedly criticised for its use of statistics.
David Webster, a senior research fellow at Glasgow University, said: "It is a matter of concern that these statistics have been delayed. JSA sanctions and disallowances were already rising markedly under the coalition, from about 3% of claimants per month, which they inherited, to over 4%, but the most recently published figures run only to October 2012.
"Since then there has been a big increase in the length of the most commonly occurring types of sanction, and the internal DWP 'score chart', published in the Guardian on 28 March, implied that there was a big further rise in the rate of sanctions per month in December and January, to over 7%.
"There is evidence that the increase in sanctions has led to the DWP failing to achieve its promised timescales for dealing with appeals.
"Administrative overload with increased sanctions may indeed be why there are problems with the statistics. Given the damage that it's known these sanctions can do, the public need to know as soon as possible what is happening."
The government introduced a new three-tier sanctions regime in October 2012 for JSA and in December 2012 for employment and support allowance.
Comment It's good to see the DWP and the government taking a well deserved hammering over the way they've been pumping out their grossly distorted statistics. It's to no one's advantage to push ahead with reforms on the basis of nothing more than government led spin. I've been waiting to see the publication of the sanctions related to Employment & Support Allowance for sometime as they have an obvious bearing on the claimant reduction. They also provide the evidence as to exactly why it is that an incapacitated claimant, often with considerable limitation, would find themselves sanctioned in the first place, it's just a shame it seems we are going to have to wait for these figures a while longer.
It's also notable that the DWP Press Office was remarkably shy in making the usual meat out of last weeks Fraud & Error figures and the latest updates to the claimant count, not enough meat on the bones to make a headline in the Daily Mail - how extraordinary?
Truth is there wasn't too much for them to shout about.