by GMLC Volunteer Joe Payne
A recent High Court decision was deservingly won by the Law Centres Network (LCN) in a challenge to the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) Legal Aid policy, via Judicial Review. Judicial Review is a legal challenge to the way a decision has been made by a public body.
The changes concerned in this decision related to the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS). This is where essential legal advice and representation is provided at court for people facing possession proceedings. More importantly, these people, often without representation, are at risk of losing their homes due to rent arrears or mortgage debts and may become homeless as a result.
The MoJ’s proposed changes would have threatened what remains of face to face support provided by Law Centres and others. Among other devastating effects, less than a third of current schemes would have survived, and each would have had to serve a much larger area, so people at risk of eviction would need to travel much farther and at great expense to get help to defend their homes.
An irrational decision that “did not add up”
The first ground of challenge was whether the Ministry of Justice had any sufficient evidence to justify the policy. The MoJ asserted that small schemes were not economically viable or sustainable, and that moving to larger scheme contracts would improve their sustainability. The LCN argued that the MoJ rearranged these court duty schemes based on questionable and untested assumptions, and that this was an irrational decision and “did not add up”.
Acting without considering the effects on people
It was also argued that MoJ acted without proper analysis of its effect on people for whom the service is intended, which was the basis of the equality challenge.
A decision that no reasonable decision-maker could reach
Mrs Justice Andrews DBE upheld both the claims, so the challenge succeeded on both grounds.
On the irrationality challenge, she wrote “that this decision was one that no reasonable decision-maker could reach” . On the breach of MoJ’s equality duty, she stated “the impact of the decisions under challenge is that some of them will get a worse service overall because whilst they will get the same assistance as before at court, they will not have the same access to the follow-up “wraparound” services which local Law Centres were providing” . The wraparound service is the network of people who volunteer at the different law centres around the country. These people do not come within the scope of Legal Aid, so they cannot pay for legal representation.
The Judge ordered the quashing (rejection) of the new contracts relating to the duty scheme. Justice Andrews made it clear that there was a general lack of evidence for the changes, the reasoning was flawed and that there was no real sustainability issue to begin with.
A continuing fight for free access to justice
The background to this case is found in the ongoing cuts to services providing free legal advice and representation, which significantly affects vulnerable people’s access to justice. This is a continuing fight and for more information on the history and future of legal aid, please follow this link to our description of the Legal Aid landscape.
Fighting together: we need your support
Despite the LCN’s success in this case, the struggle does not end here.
Hope has been seen in crowdfunding activities such as the LCN’s fundraiser on Crowd Justice which raised over £3,800 in order to bring the case against the MoJ. People are coming together to fight for free access to justice.
This is a victory, but these battles would not be needed if we had sustainable and effected legal aid and services providing it. Law Centres like GMLC and others in the Law Centres Network still need the help of the public, whether that’s through volunteer work or donations.
By Joe Payne
Joe is a Volunteer with GMLC. He has recently finished studying the GDL at Manchester Law School and is eager to facilitate change and fight for injustice. He wants to become a Solicitor, looking to specialise in human rights.