The family justice minister Simon Hughes has called for an urgent review of legal aid cuts in a move that publicly signals Liberal Democrat unease over the impact of coalition austerity policies.
In a statement issued through his party’s press office, Hughes has asked his own department, the Ministry of Justice, to investigate whether vulnerable children are being deprived of access to justice.
His comments, clearly aimed at differentiating Liberal Democrat priorities from those of their Conservative coalition partners, follows publication of a scathing report on Wednesday by the children’s commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson.
That report – Legal Aid Changes Since April 2013: Child Rights Impact Assessment – claimed that rights guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are being breached because children are denied adequate legal representation and support.
Hughes’ statement, headlined “children’s access to legal aid”, said: “I have asked the Ministry of Justice to review the findings in this report. We have had to make difficult decisions to protect legal aid for the long term but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the rights of children. If there are gaps in the new system I am determined they are addressed urgently.”
One of the criticisms made by the commissioner’s report was how few applications for legal aid are being granted on the grounds of exceptional needs because the criteria imposed is too strict and complex.
Hughes, formerly deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, became a minister in December last year. His portfolio of responsibilities at the MoJ includes family justice as well as human rights.
The minister has also written a formal memorandum to the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, saying: “I understand it was agreed that the department would review the situation if we were provided with evidence that demonstrated vulnerable individuals were being denied access to legal aid.”
Given the potentially vulnerable position of children in the legal system, he added, the concerns raised in the report should be investigated. Hughes, reportedly frustrated at the department’s reluctance to admit there are problems with provision of legal aid, is understood to have released his statement without giving fellow ministers advance notice.
Hughes’ move to highlight his concerns comes as the party conference season heats up. The Liberal Democrat gathering was delayed this year until after the Conservatives’ to avoid clashing with the Scottish referendum.
The MoJ will be reviewing the effect of the legal aid reforms. Responding to the children’s commissioner’s report earlier this week, a departmental spokesperson said: “Our reforms have prioritised funding for cases involving the most vulnerable and have made sure that family cases involving children at risk can still get legal aid.
“We are closely monitoring the impact of the changes and would be concerned if there was any evidence presented to us that vulnerable children were not getting the legal help they needed. Since 2011 we have significantly reduced the time that care cases involving children take, and have introduced major reforms to keep more family disputes out of court.”
In a separate development, the Ministry of Justice announced on Wednesday that it will re-run part of its consultation process on cutting the number of criminal legal aid contracts made available to solicitors.
The move follows a ruling in the high court last week that an earlier public consultation process, which excluded commissioned reports by the accountants KPMG and Otterburn, was “so unfair as to amount to illegality”. The MoJ’s aim is to reduce the number of contracts for duty solicitors at police stations and magistrates courts from 1,600 to 525.
The MoJ has decided against appealing the judgment. Explaining the need to re-run part of the consultation, an MoJ spokesperson said: “We have engaged constructively and consistently with lawyers throughout the 18-month reform period. We will now undertake a short consultation on the economic reports which contribute to decisions on the number of duty work contracts. We will consider the number of contracts once this is complete.”
Commenting on the MoJ’s need to rerun the consultation, Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association – one of the two claimants in the judicial review – said: “This is swift action indeed from the MoJ. It seems a little odd and surprising that within this new mini-consultation, there’s not a whiff or a word of last week’s shaming judicial review. Or indeed that Mr Grayling was found by a high court judge to have acted unlawfully in the original consultation. That detail has been overlooked.
“The turnaround on this reconsultation is tight by any stretch. We don’t want to be too cynical but we really hope it’s not a tokenistic, paper exercise, rather a chance for a genuine rethink where the future of high standard legal representation comes before ideology.”
Story Courtesy of the guardian