Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

Memorandum submitted by CLEVELAND & Co SOLICITORS (LA 59)

Re: Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

1. We are a medium sized provider of Legal Services based in Whitechapel London. We now employ about twenty staff admitted and clerical. We provide legal services to several hundred clients mostly through Legal Aid and Representation although we do provide services on a private basis and on very limited occasion a "pro bono " basis. The categories of work that we deal with are Immigration and Asylum, Human Rights, Employment, Housing, Community Care Criminal, Actions against the Police, Debt and Welfare Benefits . We now hold a LSC contract for Immigration Employment and Criminal work. Up until the last contract period we also held a Housing Community Care and Welfare Benefits Contract this remains in dispute with the LSC.

2. We would suggest that we have relevant expertise, experience and special interest in the Governments proposals to restrict and reshape the civil Legal Aid environment. This is because in our view the proposals will directly affect the company, our employees and our client base severely and in our view unnecessarily, quite apart from the more general view with regard to access to justice better expressed by others. We also note that clearly all of our employees and many of our client base are tax payers too.

3. It is noted that the proposals for reducing the scope for civil legal aid are directed squarely at the areas of law and clients that we as a company deal with. We note the proposals to restrict the scope of legal aid are allegedly decided on the basis of the vulnerability or other wise of clients. This rational is noted as the reason why in immigration work asylum detention deportation and human rights are left in scope whereas in our view oddly family matters are apparently taken out of scope despite the governments obligations under Article 8 of the ECHR and s55 of the 2009 Borders Act. The rational further "explains" why in terms of housing matters if it is a question of possession then the matter remains in scope but if it is about disrepair and suitability of housing then the matter is no longer in scope.

4. Many of our clients on any understanding of the concept are vulnerable they have legal disputes between themselves and powerful government institutions such as the UKBA, DWP, landlords private and social, employers and financial institutions. Unrepresented client’s are indeed weak litigators and if their redress is though the law then they should be able to access that redress by legal representation to create the desired equality of arms other wise the legal right becomes otiose.

5. A rational given for taking matters out of scope is because the areas of law are simple and easy to understand and therefore there is no need of legal representation. Whereas it is our submission that immigration law, employment law, housing law benefits law community care law are the most complex areas of law on the statute book. It is also noted there have been many years judicial interpretation of the law in these areas in the UK courts and the European Courts. . For an example how many Immigration Acts have been passed in the last decade? How many remodels of the "Points Based System" have their been? How many times has the benefit system been "shaken up" and "reformed" in the last decade. We submit that these legal aid reforms will reduce the ability of litigants to argue the case if their applications are refused by mistake of fact or mistake of law.

6. A further rational given for taking some matters out scope is the strength and innate fairness of the Tribunal system. However, we work daily within the Tribunal system and our understanding of the Tribunal system points in the opposite direction. In our experience matters at Tribunals are decided in an adversarial environment with strong litigants who are usually legally represented. Our clients opponents are able to raise procedure and cross examine evidence in an increasingly hostile environment. We are aware that Tribunal Judges can be faced with grave difficulties when there are "litigants in person" hearings can extend further than necessary rather than when litigant’s are represented legal questions and disputes can be narrowed.

7. It is noted that after the recent collapse of the Immigration Advisory Service Mr J Sedgewick ACE UKBA wrote a letter to ILPA on 26 th July 2011 and it included this comment…" It is very important to the UKBA that adequate levels of advice are available for those making immigration applications , particularly those who are vulnerable. We will make every effort to ensure that IAS clients are not disproportionately affected by the current situation and will treat individual cases sensitively ." As a company we have been allocated 2000 of IAS’s files by the Legal Services Commission. If this company did not exist because of these proposals then the importance of getting adequate levels of advice as noted by the UKBA would simply be overridden by purely financial demands.

8. We submit that it should be regarded as most important to the Tribunal and Courts, to government departments, landlords employers and financial institutions that relevant legal advice and assistance is readily available subject to a reasonable means test to all those like our clients who other wise would not get any.

9. We submit that in the round these proposals if they are accepted it will mean the closure of our company, the unemployment of many of our staff and the loss of provision of legal advice and assistance for most of our clients.

August 2011

Prepared 7th September 2011