Lawyers may strike over legal aid modernisation

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Earlier this year, the States were due to debate the new Access to Justice laws, which included sweeping reforms to the legal aid system, but the legislation was called in for review by the Corporate Services Scrutiny Panel and still has not been re-lodged by Chief Minister John Le Fondré.

In an email to Law Society members, a copy of which has been seen by the JEP, the organisation’s president, John Kelleher, expresses disappointment that delays and proposed changes to the Access to Justice Law would see lawyers’ influence over the legal aid system reduced and more Islanders potentially become eligible for free or discounted legal advice under the scheme.

‘These changes in the round, if accepted and voted in by the States of Jersey government,’ his email says, ‘would in all likelihood increase the legal aid burden upon all the members of the Law Society.’

Under the current guidelines, Islanders with a household income of less than £45,000 are eligible to apply for legal aid. The JEP has previously reported that the Law Society would like to see this reduced to £30,001.

A survey attached to the email also asks members what ‘legal or tactical’ steps they would be prepared to take in the case of further delays to the reform of legal aid, including whether they would be prepared to ‘go on strike or work to rule’ if they are on the ‘tour de rôle’ rota, which requires lawyers with less than 15 years’ experience to take on legal aid clients.

The email also expresses dissatisfaction with changes informally suggested by Scrutiny which would see politicians gain more control over the scheme’s guidelines.

‘The effect of such changes would be to increase direct political control over the guidelines, while reducing the Law Society’s influence and involvement, with the potential for arbitrary and unilateral changes to the guidelines to be imposed,’ it says.

‘We intend to resist these changes, which could, for example, extend eligibility criteria beyond that which we felt comfortable.’

It adds that they are also unhappy that the Bailiff, Sir William Bailhache, has proposed that the eligibility criteria for the scheme is extended to allow more lower-income households to receive aid.

‘We are aware of proposals advanced by the Bailiff to increase the financial eligibility for legal aid even beyond the current levels, notwithstanding that eligibility levels were crystallised some time ago and, at the time, accepted by all key stakeholders. Similarly, we intend to resist these changes.’

However, the Chief Minister said that the law must go through due process.

‘This is important legislation,’ he said, ‘and I am fully supportive of the principles of the draft Access to Justice Law. However, it is crucial that the draft law goes through due process, as this was not done in the previous Assembly. Scrutiny is considering it and will propose amendments for the Council of Ministers to consider at the earliest opportunity. We then intend to lodge draft legislation to ensure that we have the right legal aid scheme for Jersey.’

The email, meanwhile, says that as a result of these delays, Law Society members’ patience is ‘wearing thin’.

‘The commitment of the previous Council of Ministers, who had agreed to work in partnership with us, to create a scheme that is fit-for-purpose, is now sadly lacking in the reconstituted Council of Ministers,’ it adds.

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