Free Legal Advice Centre participate in the Edinburgh Legal Walk 2015

The Edinburgh Legal Walk took place on Monday 12th October 2015 with several student volunteers from the Free Legal Advice Centre taking part. This was an 8km sponsored walk around Edinburgh to raise money for the Access to Justice Foundation which provides funding and support to pro bono charities.

This year the walk was named “The Edinburgh Magna Carta Legal Walk” as we were celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The walk was headed up by Lord Tyre and Christine McLintock, the President of the Law Society of Scotland. The Edinburgh Legal Walk is not only a great opportunity to raise money for a local cause supporting the community, but it was also important for team building within our Free Legal Advice Centre and sightsee around the Old Town of Edinburgh.

The walk was a great success for the Free Legal Advice Centre with over £600 being raised for the Access to Justice Foundation. The money raised from events such as this helps to provide an access to justice to the local community as the organisation supports the ever growing need for free legal advice centres.

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Edinburgh Legal Walk – Take Part!

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What is the walk?

The Edinburgh Legal Walk is an easy and pleasant 10km stroll around the city’s key sights. Walking in teams as their court, law firm or chambers, law college or in-house legal department, the profession comes together to raise money to support the provision of free legal advice in Scotland.

Why is it important?

This will be a difficult year for specialist legal advice charities and for the people who rely on those agencies for access to justice.  These organisations make a huge difference to people’s lives, reducing debt, poverty and homelessness, and combating discrimination and injustice.

The Access to Justice Foundation raises funds to help legal advice agencies based in Scotland continue with their brilliant activities in supporting and providing free legal advice for some of the most vulnerable in society.

How to get involved

  1. You need a team organiser – you, or could you help us find one?
  2. Complete the Registration Form and send it to scotlandlegalwalk@atjf.org.uk
  3. The Foundation will register you, create a fundraising webpage and provide all the details you need
  4. The Foundation will send you update details of the walk
  5. Get fundraising!

The Foundation would like to thank the University of Edinburgh and The Law Society for helping us make this event possible.

Follow the Foundation on Twitter using the hashtag #legalwalk.

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SULCN Conference 2014

This year, it was the turn of Edinburgh University to host the third annual Scottish University Law Clinic Network (SULCN) Conference.

There were two main themes to the day, both incredibly important to the development of law clinics, and clinical legal education. Firstly, the relationship between law clinics and social work led by Carrie Anne HaganSusan McGraugh and Stephanie Kristen Boys, three clinicians from the USA, and secondly the wonderful Street Law programme, led by David McQuoid-Mason.

As well as these two main themes, there were several other workshops to choose from, including Innocence Projects, an exchange of ideas on running a law clinic, community projects, and an opportunity to meet with various agencies and charities and learn more about how students and legal professionals can volunteer.

Despite the rather scary name, the closing session ‘From the cradle to the grave’ hosted a varied panel of legal professionals at varying stages of their careers, whose insight into continuing involvement in pro bono work after graduation confirmed a positive outlook for the future of Scottish law clinics.

Edinburgh Hosting Scottish Free Legal Advice Conference

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Scottish University Law Clinic Network
Round Table Event
Wednesday 4  June 2014
University of Edinburgh
 
We are delighted to invite you to the 2014 Scottish University Law Clinic Network Round Table Event, which, this year will be hosted by the University of Edinburgh.
This conference, which is the third annual round table event of the Scottish University Law Clinic Network, is designed to bring together students and staff in Scottish and other universities to share ideas about how universities can contribute to resolving problems surrounding access to justice. This year a major focus of the conference will be on the interaction between social work and law on which topic presentations and workshops will be delivered by three of the world’s leading figures: Carrie Anne Hagan, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Indiana University; Susan McGraugh, Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law; and Stephanie K. Boys, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Indiana University School of Social Work and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Indiana University.
 
We are also delighted that David McQuoid-Mason, father of Street Law in South Africa, will be returning this year with his “How to teach Street Law” workshop, and Richard Grimes, Director of Clinical Programmes at the University of York will be a welcome and expert contributor to our other workshops.
 
This event will be of value to anyone who is interested in delivering access to justice, either through public legal education or more direct services to the public.
 
For information concerning the programme for the conference, please click here.
£5 for students and SUCLN members; £50 for organisations and other waged individuals.
To book a place please email freelegaladvice@ed.ac.uk or phone 0131 650 9477

A Night at the Free Legal Advice Centre

On Monday nights the FLAC sessions are run smoothly and efficiently by a finely tuned team of staff and ex-students… until the student Ops Team come along and wreak havoc. Each week, two out of our team of six head to 7 Bristo Square to join Keren, Laura and Rebecca in running the Free Legal Advice Centre Sessions.

The students arrive first, usually very suavely suited up looking like right professional young lawyers. Understandably, most are nervous about their first time interviewing a real client but it is the Operation Team’s job to calm them down and go through the process of what is going to be happening on the night and in the following weeks.

I have to admit that on my first FLAC session as part of the Operations Team I knew little more than the students did and my role was purely to guess answers to their questions with some confidence. Since our first few sessions though we have all got to know the process as if it’s our daily routine (well, as ‘routine’ as a student’s day gets).

While students are being briefed the other member of the Ops Team is usually greeting clients and supervising solicitors and directing them to seating areas. Awkward moments have arisen when asking someone whether they’ve booked an appointment for some free legal advice and they turn out to be an experienced lawyer. I’ve had equally confused looks when asking members of the public what area of law they specialise in. When these (very confusing) matters have been clarified, clients are taken through the documents that they have to sign and copies of their photographic ID are taken.

Students have some time before meeting their client to talk to the solicitor that will be supervising their interview. It is then up to the students to greet their client and take them to their interview room. The Operations Team’s role in this part of the process is to match the students up with their lawyers, their rooms and their clients. When all parties are safely and securely in the correct places we use the short time to make up some files for the students (a task that causes me unnecessary grief because of the (not so) complicated folding required) and begin to organise things for the second batch of appointments of the night.

As much of a shambles as I make it sound, the sessions in fact tend to run very smoothly. Clients generally leave the Centre looking like at least a bit of a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. I heard one client thanking a student and telling her that she was extremely professional. This is what reminds me of how beneficial FLAC can be for both clients and students. Meanwhile students say goodbye to their client with a variety of emotions; joy, exhaustion, relief, dread…

The end of the night becomes quiet as clients and solicitors have left and students stay in the foyer to write up summaries of their interview and put together their (well folded) files. I leave each session pleased that twelve members of the public have had the chance to explain their situation to budding young lawyers and that twelve nervous students have managed to successfully gather information to help them advise their very own client.

 

This piece was supplied by Rae Gilchrist, one of the 6 amazing student volunteers who make the work of FLAC possible.

Committee Members Walk Through Fire

Late last term, two of our committee members walked through fire in the interests of justice. No, this isn’t hyperbole – they actually walked through fire.

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I think we can all praise the amazing commitment of our Fundraising Officer Christy Cunningham (pictured) and our Treasurer Joseph Arigho-Stiles, which helped raise in excess of £235 for the Free Legal Advice Centre.

Run by Blaze Firewalking, experts in the field of firewalking, and in giving people the confidence to believe that they can survive the absurdly high temperatures of 1236 degrees Fahrenheit generated by the 20ft of burning embers with their feet intact. With no liquid courage allowed, it was up to the Blaze staff and their hour of training to ensure that everyone was ready to face the fire, and to give them the faith that they wouldn’t be carried to A&E at the other end of it!

Christy said: “It’s strange, I was more nervous about walking on it before I saw it lit than after.  I think the temperature might have had something to do with that though, since by the time it was my turn, I was happy to walk the embers in the hopes of warming my feet up!”

This money will be used to help all of our clients, but will be of particular benefit to our upcoming Small Claims Advice and Representation Service which is launching in the very near future. With another firewalking session happening at Edinburgh University in late February, there is no word yet as to whether the rest of the committee or any of our staff members are willing to go through similar trials. We’ll keep you updated!

Scottish Government ‘revises timetable’ for Client Contributions

The change to the legal aid system in Scotland to require client contributions for criminal legal aid has been among the most contentious proposed by Kenny MacAskill MSP. Alongside the proposed removal of corroboration, the possibility of contracting for criminal legal aid, and the closure of several courts which had previously been open for decades, these mooted changes led to MacAskill being thought of as the most active, but also the most controversial, Cabinet Secretary for Justice since devolution began. While the Free Legal Advice Centre doesn’t deal with criminal matters, the episode raises interesting points about the priorities of the Scottish Government vis-à-vis justice and the ability of the legal profession to impact on legislative change.

The introduction of client contributions would have asked defendants eligible for legal aid asked to contribute to the costs of their legal representation for the very first time. Initial proposals put forward figures that anyone with disposable income of greater than £68 per week would be expected to pay part of their legal fees. MSPs eventually backed legislation that meant people with a disposable income of greater than £82 per week would have to make a contribution. A major aspect of the proposals as accepted by MSPs was that it would obligate solicitors to collect the sum from clients themselves, rather than any central body collecting these debts.

For his part, Mr MacAskill said that it was ‘right and proper’ to oblige those who could pay legal fees to do so, particularly when legal aid expenditure was at historically high levels of £157.3 million, the second highest annual total on record). The Scottish Government said that around 80% of those utilising legal aid would continue to pay nothing. However many attacked the logic of limiting criminal legal aid in this way, with Alison McInnes MSP noting that the changes ‘risked irrevocably harming access to justice in order to cut around £4 million from a £150 million budget’. General criticism has been made of the costs and wasted time associated with individuals representing themselves, which would presumably increase. The Scottish Conservatives said that the Scottish Government ‘[were] in danger of breaching human rights legislation.’

Since the plans were introduced, they were subject to vociferous campaigning by lawyers in all parts of Scotland. The high profile ‘Protest for Justice’ group coordinated several protests outside the Scottish Parliament against the proposals, alongside other issues. Those attending included over 100 lawyers, including the President and Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland. Despite these protests being of limited impact initially – with anonymous blogger @IdealCynic criticising the protests for lacking figureheads and quickly inducing apathy, and media characterisations of ‘the best dressed protest ever seen’ – the Scottish Government have very recently delayed the commencement of the legislation.

This followed a concerted effort by the Law Society of Scotland, which itself introduced new guidance which advised solicitors not to appear in court on behalf of clients unless said client had paid in advance. This raised the spectre of defendants being left to represent themselves, clogging up the court system and leaving it susceptible to human rights claims by those who were unable to access legal advice. The Law Society should ultimately be praised in standing up for the interests of its members in such a forthright way, with Mark Harrower of the Edinburgh Bar Association drawing a direct link between their new guidance and the apparent climb-down by the Scottish Government: ‘The only explanation can be that they didn’t expect the Law Society to take such a strong line in order to protect solicitors… The [Scottish Legal Aid Board] believed we would simply swallow the losses brought about by unpaid contributions’.

Other political parties have attempted to paint this as part of a wider problem with the Scottish Government, Scottish Labour’s Graeme Pearson MSP stating that ‘it’s a hell for leather, let’s get a headline approach to justice policy, and is not the way the government should perform.’ Whether this is the case is arguable although far from accepted, but it’s certain that the recent episode – alongside the recent softening of words on corroboration– are demonstrative of the strength the Scottish legal profession can exhibit when it acts together not in their own interests but in the wider interests of the justice system.

Introduction of Controversial Employment Tribunal Fees Raises Access to Justice Arguments

For the first time since the creation of employment tribunals in 1960, employees seeking to bring an action against their employer will have to pay £160 (for more straightforward cases) or £250 (for more complicated cases) to lodge a claim and a further charge of either £230 or £950, respectively, if their case is progressed.   

The Employment Tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Order 2013 was introduced on Monday 29 July by the UK Government, partly as an attempt to reduce the number of vexatious and unnecessary claims and encourage early settlements.

Whilst the Government has claimed that waivers will be available for those who cannot afford to pay the fees, this news raises many questions of access to justice particularly for low paid working mothers. Critics are concerned that the new rules will prevent many employees from making legitimate claims about sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

The introduction of these fees is currently subject to judicial review proceedings in Scotland on grounds of access to justice. For more information please see the Scottish Legal News’ article of 12 July here.  

More information on the fees in general can be found at the Ministry of Justice’s Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Stakeholder factsheet here.

Scottish Universities Law Clinic Network (SULCN) Roundtable

On 7 June, eight Edinburgh law students representing the Free Legal Advice Centre attended the SULCN Roundtable event hosted by Strathclyde University.

SULCN was formally launched in June last year to act as a forum devoted to encouraging communication, collaboration and information exchange amongst existing law clinics whilst supporting the establishment of new law clinics.

This year’s event brought together law students and academics from around the world and students were fortunate to hear from Ed O’Brien, Executive Director Emeritus, Streetlaw Inc. and David McQuoid-Mason, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, both of whom talked about Street Law and explained how to teach and deliver Street Law programmes. Street Law is an interactive presentation to educate an identified group about their legal rights and responsibilities in relation to a particular issue or area of law.

The day included a number of useful discussions and workshops, with three Edinburgh delegates, Claudia Jack (FLAC Student Director), Rachel Mackenzie (Graduate LLB student and volunteer for the Student Child Advocacy Project), and Rebecca Samaras (Pro Bono Coordinator) giving presentations on different clinic models, clinical activities, and integration of clinical legal education into clinics and the curriculum.

To conclude what was a truly inspiring day, delegates heard from Bruce Beveridge, President of the Law Society of Scotland, Catriona Headley, past President of the Scottish Young Lawyer’s Assocation, Ian Moffet, Chair of LawWorks Scotland, Eugene Creally, Free Legal Services Unit, Faculty of Advocates, and Malcolm Combe for the Higher Education Academy.  Each representative explained the importance of and discussed the opportunities for retaining a commitment to promoting access to justice after graduation.

Central Legal Assistance Office “Bedroom Tax” Briefing

In response to the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, which came into effect at the beginning of this month, the Central Legal Assistance Office has produced a helpful briefing:

CIVIL LEGAL ASSISTANCE OFFICE: BEDROOM TAX BRIEFING

When:-      From 1 April 2013.

Effect:-     Social sector households which contain working age claimants of housing benefit and who are deemed to under-occupy their property will have their housing benefit reduced.

•           Those who are assessed as under occupying by 1 bedroom will have their housing benefit reduced by 14% of their eligible rent.

•           Those who are assessed as under occupying by 2 or more bedrooms will have their housing benefit reduced by 25% of their eligible rent.

How many households will be affected?

According to Scottish Government figures approximately 105,000 households in local authority and housing association housing  in Scotland will be affected.  Of these, it is estimated:-

•           83,000  under-occupy by 1 bedroom;

•           22,000 under-occupy by 2 or more bedrooms.

Scottish Government  research also predicts that:-

•           23,000 of the households affected have a household member with a disability which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities.

•           16,000 of the households affected have an aid or adaptation to their house to assist a household member with a disability.

•           22% of households affected will have an under occupation penalty of more than 10% of their income after housing benefit.

There is very limited scope for an under occupying tenant subject to move to alternative accommodation in the social rented sector.  There is a dearth of  1 bedroom social rented properties.  While 60% of tenants need a 1 bedroom properties to not exceed the DWP standard only 26% of occupied social rented properties have 1 bedroom.

LEGAL CHALLENGE

Many tenants will be living in tenancies which they can no longer afford, whilst having  no viable alternative available to them. A disproportionate amount of vulnerable clients who tend to live in Social sector accommodation will be affected. This combined with the fact that under the Universal Credit scheme the government intends to greatly reduce housing benefit payments directly to landlords is likely to lead to a greater level of rent arrears.

Most housing lawyers believe that the blanket application of the new housing benefit deductions may be challengeable through the courts on the grounds that they breach the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 8: the right to respect for private and family life and Art 14: Prohibition of Discrimination. Challenges may also be available under the Equality Act 2010.

In England, Judicial Review proceedings have already been raised challenging the application of the new rules. It is likely that Scottish cases will be raised in the near future.

SCENARIOS WHERE LEGAL CHALLENGES MAY BE AVAILABLE TO CLIENTS INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING:

  1. If a client shares child care with a partner but faces a deduction in child benefit which will mean they can no longer maintain a property big enough to allow their children to stay over.
  2. If there is a person in the household  suffering from a disability which has an affect on their housing needs
  3. If the tenant has been actively looking and applying for a smaller property but has been unsuccessful.
  4. If any member of the household suffers from physical or mental health problems which have an affect on their housing needs
  5. If any member of the household has been affected by domestic violence
  6. If the rooms which have been designated as bedrooms are not suitable for that purpose because of issues of size or the layout of the property, for example being asked to use a dining room or a box room as a bedroom.

AS THE LAW IN THIS AREA IS DEVELOPING WE RECOMMEND THAT IN IN THE MEANTIME ADVISERS ASSIST CLIENTS SUBJECT TO DEDUCTIONS TO TAKE THE FOLLOWING STEPS TO PROTECT THEIR POSITION:

  1. APPLY FOR DISCRETIONARY HOUSING BENEFIT: This is paid to meet shortfalls between Housing Benefit and Rent. It is a limited fund and payments are discretionary however, vulnerable clients in particular may receive payments. There has been an increase in the fund with guidance that the sums be used to address the effects of the new HB rules on disabled tenants and foster carers.
  2. SUBMIT AN APPEAL AGAINST THE DECISION TO REDUCE HOUSING BENEFIT: Claimants have one calendar month from the date when they are advised in writing that their housing benefit has been reduced to submit an appeal against that decision. If their circumstances are similar to any of the situations outlined above then they should describe their personal circumstances in the appeal and point out that the decision does not comply with the Human Rights Act 1998. Govan law centre have compiled a useful toolkit which can be downloaded from their website and which may be of assistance to advisers.
  3. CHECK WITH A SOLICITOR WHETHER AN ACTION FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW CAN BE RAISED: As this is a developing area of law it is likely that a number of test cases will be raised to ask the courts whether various different sets of circumstances mean that the new rules are breaching human rights laws. Advisers should check with a housing  lawyer whether any given case may be appropriate for judicial review.

IF POSSIBLE ALL THREE OPTIONS SHOULD BE INVESTIGATED.

IF YOU HAVE ANY QUERIES PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO CONTACT US:

www.clao.org.uk 0131 2401960