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Young lawyers put access to justice on the political agenda

YLAL to celebrate its 10th anniversary with rallying call to the legal profession and politicians

23 April 2015

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An award winning group of junior lawyers and students is aiming to put legal aid and access to justice firmly on the political agenda for the general election.

The Young Legal Aid Lawyers' (YLAL) commitment to publicly funded legal advice is set to be celebrated at the group's 10th anniversary at London South Bank University tonight.

Over the last decade, YLAL members comprised of students, paralegals, trainee lawyers, solicitors, and barristers have campaigned and lobbied on justice issues. The group was awarded 'Young Person of the Year' at the Liberty Human Rights Awards, in 2010, for providing quality representation advice and access to justice.

Now the YLAL is aiming to further highlight the savage cuts made by the coalition government to the legal aid budget in the run up to the election. The cuts to legal aid have attracted widespread criticism, including by the Justice Select Committee, National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.

Harmful reforms

A recent report by the Justice Select Committee concluded that the reforms had harmed access to justice for some litigants and that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had failed to carry out adequate research before implementing the cuts.

In November 2014, the National Audit Office concluded that the government's cuts to legal aid had the potential to create additional knock-on costs, partly as a result of an increase in unrepresented litigants.

The Public Accounts Committee weighed in on the issue when it published a report in February 2015, which was heavily critical of cuts to legal aid.

Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee, said: 'The ministry does not know, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the wider public sector as a result of increased physical and mental health problems caused by the inability to access advice to resolve legal problems.

'It therefore has no idea whether the projected £300m spending reduction in its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere. It does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given. In short, there is not a lot the ministry does know.'

In addition, the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, has faced a series of judicial reviews over the lawfulness of his legal aid reforms, several of which have found that the government acted unlawfully in seeking to restrict the availability of publicly-funded legal advice.

Former attorney general, Baroness Patricia Scotland QC, will be delivering the keynote address at the YLAL event, and will be followed by a panel discussion including Labour's justice spokesperson Andy Slaughter, the Green's Baroness Jenny Jones, and Geoffrey Payne of the Liberal Democrats.

The panel debate provides an opportunity for students and young lawyers to put questions to the politicians about their justice and legal aid policies, as well as hearing from practitioners with first-hand experience of the effect of government reforms.

Dedicated cause

Commenting on the event, barrister Martha Spurrier of Doughty Street Chambers said: 'YLAL is a brilliant organisation. It is at the forefront of the campaign for a sustainable and fair legal aid system, its members are tireless and dedicated to the cause, and it provides a hub of expertise, support and camaraderie for junior legal aid lawyers. We'd be lost without it!'

Solange Valdez of Ealing Law Centre added: 'YLAL is so important to all those starting out on their career in legal aid who benefit from the invaluable support of other like-minded people. Their campaigning over the past ten years has helped push legal aid up the agenda at a time when the sector has been facing devastating cuts. It is vital that we continue the fight.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD

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Legal Aid