As legal practitioners representing clients in matters close to Labour’s heart, a team from Duncan Lewis is set to attend the Labour Party Conference from 23 – 26 September, including Anthony Okumah, Zofia Duszynska, Toufique Hossain, Rebecca Thomas, Tamana Aziz, Nilma Shah, Tamara Smillie and Lynda Reid, with an aim to inform MPs, organisations, unions and all those attending about the most telling issues surrounding access to justice today.
The current rules for legal aid funding create unacceptable obstacles for the most vulnerable individuals to access justice, regardless of the merit of their claims. As the largest UK provider of legal aid, with legal aid franchises in 11 areas of law, we are committed to enabling access to high quality legal assistance for all communities we serve.
Currently, one of the biggest issues affecting the work we do is that we are unable to help clients until the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) make a positive decision on funding. Their position is that the Procedure Regulations do not allow the LAA to make legal aid payments for work undertaken before it grants funding. This means legal aid providers are not reimbursed for any work undertaken on an emergency basis before the LAA considers the application and grants funding. To combat these difficulties, we have been granted permission in a claim for judicial review to challenge the lawfulness of the Procedure Regulations and the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) interpretation of these regulations.
We see the effects that the cuts have in certain areas of the UK, with fewer legal aid providers able to offer local advice. In a bid to tackle legal aid “deserts”, we have over 35 appointment-only offices across England & Wales and we regularly provide pro bono assistance at legal advice centres. Through our work we seek to protect the most vulnerable in society and to uphold the rule of law that requires that legal redress be universally accessible and available. We target communities where language and cultural barriers often make access to mainstream legal services problematic. In order to offer the highest-calibre services, many of our solicitors undertake additional training allowing them to communicate with vulnerable clients in the best possible manner.
We support the Bach Commission, which calls for all cases concerning children to come back under the scope of legal aid. It criticises the current system which has seen an inordinate number of litigants appearing in person at the family courts. Many are forced to represent themselves simply because they cannot afford legal representation.
Our family team is uniquely positioned to help families struggling to meet the strict legal aid requirements. Since we are contracted with the Legal Aid Agency, we can provide publicly funded, remote advice and assistance to clients across the UK. In 2017 we served 8,000 family and housing clients remotely using a range of means including; web conferencing, Braille, British Sign Language and Easy Read.
Another prominent issue concerns the protection of social tenants. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has highlighted the systemic problems that leave tenants across the UK vulnerable. We are representing and assisting a number of core participants in the inquiry, working across a number of practice areas; crime, housing, public law and personal injury to provide clients with a unique service.
There is also hope that the launch of the Green Paper will provide more protection for social housing tenants, and Labour is pushing for a greater number of housing matters to return under the scope of legal aid. If this does progress, it will enable us to help more clients in a greater number of housing disputes, with the reassurance that, where eligible, all costs will be covered by public funding.
We look forward to attending this year's Labour Party Conference, to be held at Liverpool ACC, where it is our aim to further inform those attending the conference about the continuous difficulties concerning access to justice and update them on our challenge against the Legal Aid Agency’s rules on backdating of funding. We will be situated in the exhibiter's hall at stall 113 for anyone attending that wishes to speak to us on these issues and anything else that we can assist with.