Legal aid lawyers: Defiant and optimistic, as always

On 9 October 2015, the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) once again joined the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) for their annual conference in Birmingham, this year called: 'Legal Aid: The Future'. In spite of the severe cuts to public funding implemented under the coalition government, the mood of the assembled legal aid lawyers remained defiant and optimistic.

YLAL runs two seminars at every conference, one of which offers advice and information to aspiring entrants to the legal aid profession (who are, literally, the future of legal aid), while the other considers an issue of contemporaneous significance. This year, we focused on how the law can be used to protect access to justice and human rights, of particular importance in light of the government's imminent plan to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with an as yet unpublished British Bill of Rights.

YLAL founder, Dr Laura Janes, a solicitor specialising in prison law, public law, and criminal appeals, and Martha Spurrier, a public law and civil actions barrister, ran the seminar. The first half outlined the series of judicial review claims that have been brought over the last two years to challenge the lawfulness of the cuts to legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012, while the second half examined the effect of human rights in individual cases across different areas of law.

The recent prison law case of Bourgass and Hussain [2015] UKSC 54 was cited as an example in which human rights principles were relied upon to establish that the process for solitary confinement of prisoners has to be fair. Other examples were offered by practitioners during the interactive seminar, including the use in family law of European Convention of Human Rights article 8, which protects the right to respect for private and family life, and also article 6, which protects the right to a fair trial.

Examples were given of the use of article 5 in public law and community care, which provides that everyone has the right to liberty and security of person, and article 3, which prohibits torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment within law relating to actions against the police. Delegates were also invited to share their own experiences of legal aid cases that have been influenced by human rights arguments, whether by invoking the Human Rights Act directly or via common law.

A government consultation led by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, is expected in a few months' time to set out what the proposed British Bill of Rights will look like. When that time comes, legal aid lawyers will need to be ready to demonstrate how vital the Human Rights Act has become to access to justice and the rule of law.

The movement to save the Human Rights Act has begun already: #ActfortheAct aims to tell the stories of ordinary people who have relied on the Human Rights Act to obtain justice. As an organisation committed to equality, justice, and the rule of law, YLAL will support any efforts to defend the notion of universal, legally enforceable human rights.

This article was originally published on the Solicitors Journal  and was co-written by Heather Thomas a family solicitor at TV Edwards