Report from the LAPG Annual Conference

The Legal Aid Practitioners Group annual conference took place in London on 6th October and yet again proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and educational event.  A day packed full of practical and informative content had been arranged, which this year was to be rounded off with an appearance by a ‘mystery guest’.

The day started with a welcome from Nicola Mackintosh, Co-Chair of LAPG. She outlined the work that LAPG do influencing, lobbying and campaigning and assured delegates that ‘we really do care about justice’.  Attention was drawn to LAPG’s latest manifesto for legal aid which would be hot off the press later that afternoon. The manifesto was described as having concrete proposals for practitioners, clients and tax payers and was calling for a restoration of early legal advice, changes to the scope across the board to rectify the worst of the cuts, and a simplification of the operation of  legal aid. We needed a legal aid system that worked today and for future generations.

The Plenary session involved a panel considering the question – What Does the Future Hold? Christina Blacklaws, Vice President of the Law Society confirmed that they were keen to work with LAPG and wanted a thorough review of LASPO and to increase political pressure to make the changes required. There was also a message for all legal aid lawyers: ‘Please do carry on your clients need you, you’re doing an important job’.  Andrew Walker QC highlighted the need to keep making the case for more money to be made available by the government ‘Justice at the moment does not have much clout… we have a long way to go to getting justice up the priority ladder’.. and we are to ‘keep up the fight whatever party is in government’.

The core message throughout the morning was the importance of Access to Justice and the fact that LASPO undermines that. It was highlighted that the recent Bach report threw weight behind recommendations to re-establish legal aid for early advice and reform legal aid eligibility rules.

Other highlights of the morning included the Legal Aid Agency Panel. Present to deal with questions from the delegates were Jane Harbottle, Head of Civil Legal Aid Criminal Casework, John Sirodcar, Head of Contract Management and Hannah Payne Deputy Director for Service Development and Central Commissioning. As always this was a lively session with delegates taking the opportunity to raise key concerns including CCMS, contract management, lack of caseworker knowledge, and problems caused by current provider statements.

After an excellent lunch, the afternoon started with a session looking at ‘How to Survive in Legal Aid’ with the panel providing examples of how their own practices have faced the challenges of recent years, including one of the most entertaining sections of the day provided by Jawaid Luqmani from Luqmani Thompson & Partners

Richard Miller from the Law Society looked at the role that IT could play and some of the limitations that exist concluding ‘the robots may be coming but I don’t think they are coming for you just yet……but IT can improve the way that you do your job’. A view expressed from the floor was that ‘no matter how smart technology is people reach a point where they need a hand to hold’.

In addition to the main plenary sessions there were a wide variety of workshops available to attend throughout the day. The costs workshops presented by our Head of Legal Aid David Smith and Jane Pritchard of TV Edwards proved to be very popular.

So who was the mystery guest? Well, his report had been referenced a few times earlier in the day so it was quite fitting that Lord Bach was revealed as the final speaker of the day. He re-iterated the valuable role that LAPG play and outlined some of the key recommendations of the report.

As delegates headed upstairs for the drinks reception one of the overriding feelings of the day was that perhaps there were some signs that things could start to turn in the right direction. Cautious optimism perhaps but after the impact of LASPO even small signs should be welcomed.