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Gloves off on legal aid

With the legal aid debate intensifying, along with fallout from Mitchell and 'one-year-on' evaluations of Jackson, there is no shortage of personal injury issues in the news. PremExtra reviews some of the main stories.

Legal aid cuts continued to dominate headlines in May, with super-heavyweight figures from the government and judiciary pulling no punches. 

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is involved in a dispute with legal professionals over attempts to reduce legal aid spending and tighten rules on judicial review, according to the Daily Telegraph. A recent protest from barristers resulted in Grayling postponing legal aid spending cuts, although he remains committed to cutting spending on publicly funded legal services. 

Equally combative are the country's most senior judges, who have blamed legal aid cuts on a spike in unrepresented claimants, courtroom violence, extra litigation and higher costs.

The Judicial Executive Board - which includes the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson - suggests the Ministry of Justice's legal aid economies are actually resulting in higher costs and greater inefficiencies.

In another dramatic development, President of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger also voiced fears over legal aid cuts. Lord Neuberger is quoted in The Lawyer as saying: "We are getting into a position where there is a serious risk of access of justice. There is no point giving people rights, whether human rights or civil rights or family rights, if they cannot enforce them through the courts."

However, the Ministry of Justice insists its latest statistics show family court performance is being maintained, with the average time taken to complete cases remaining 'steady' since April 2013. 

After more than 12 months, legal professionals continue to debate the implications of the Jackson reforms, which heralded sweeping changes to funding and costs in civil litigation. 

An article in Lexology singles out courts' approach to costs and case management as a significant issue that has created a heavier emphasis on compliance with rules and court orders. As a result, the courts have taken a much tougher line on granting relief from sanctions - as was demonstrated with enormous repercussions by the Court of Appeal's decision in Mitchell v News Group Newspapers.

Most post-Jackson evaluations have focused on the harshness of the Mitchell penalty. Nevertheless, the High Court recently overturned a decision to refuse leniency to a defendant seeking to change his defence in an RTA case. An article in Law Society Gazette suggests this may be heralded as a less hard-line approach by judges to compliance with Jackson civil litigation procedures.

Allowing the appeal, Justice Sir David Eady cited Mitchell and Durrant, indicating that the court could be flexible if changing a defence didn't waste resources or cause inconvenience. Tellingly, Justice Eady said the interests of justice do not need to be 'compromised merely for the sake of discipline or the marking of disapproval'.

The plight of the personal injury sector was underscored by a survey from Liverpool law firm O'Connors, suggesting that nearly a fifth of firms in North West England specialising in PI work are considering closing down.  Whether or not this mirrors the national picture, the unpleasant reality is that personal injury work is under threat and weaker firms are at risk, according to the Guardian.

A new campaign group claims up to 100,000 jobs could go the next year - a prediction that was given worrying weight when Midlands firm Blakemores was closed down by the regulator in March, with the loss of 200 jobs.

Gloves

Gloves off on legal aid