False economy: cuts to legal aid have been a ‘debacle’

4 Sep 18

On 1 April 2013 the government brought in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which meant hundreds of thousands of people eligibe for legal aid became ineligible. The government aimed to save itself £350m a year through this. MP Karen Buck explains here why she secured a Westminster Hall debate - on Tuesday evening this week - to discuss the act. 

 

“The ability to know about and enforce human rights is vital for the rule of law to be a reality”.

So said Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in a report called ‘Enforcing Human Rights’ published a few weeks ago.

The JCHR inquiry and report looked at the issue of access to justice and the independence of the judiciary in the round, but one of the central issues we addressed was what we described as ‘the damaging effects of legal aid reform’, mostly, though no by no means exclusively arising from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which came into effect in 2013.

The impact of LASPO on access to civil legal aid has been dramatic. 

Total Legal Aid expenditure has fallen by £600m since 2013, with the number of legal help (initial advice and assistance) cases being funded levelling out at around one-third of pre-LASPO levels.

And the number of providers in the fields of both criminal and civil law has also plunged, by 800 in crime, and 1,200 in civil.

So when our report looked at the impact of LASPO on access to justice, it is no wonder that concerns about ‘advice deserts’- ie parts of the country where advice and representation are close to non-existent, feature strongly.

In summary, legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it, even those eligible for help find it hard to access it and major gaps in service are not being addressed.

And as is so often the case, it is the most disadvantaged and disempowered who bear the burden.


‘The mental health charity MIND has found that half of the people facing legal problems removed from the scope of legal aid through the LASPO Act have mental health problems.’


To take just one group, important research by the mental health charity MIND has found that half of the people facing legal problems removed from the scope of legal aid through the LASPO Act have mental health problems.

Whole areas of help have been removed from scope, legal aid was removed from most areas of early advice, and the failure to update the means test threshold with inflation means people who are living well below the Minimum Income Standard are ineligible for legal aid and some people below the ‘poverty line’ remain liable for contributions they cannot afford.

Exceptional Case Funding, intended as a financial safety valve for more complex cases, was expected to support up to 7,000 cases per year but has fallen far, far short.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have both expressed fears that barriers are being put in the way of people seeking help to tackle discrimination and rights based cases. 

The EHCR quite rightly stresses the over-representation of people with certain protected characteristics in areas of law excluded by LASPO - people with disabilities, women and those form black and minority ethnic communities, and are likewise concerned that “many of the areas of law removed from the scope of legal aid cover issues central to domestic and international human rights protections”. 

The Joint Committee on Human Rights also heard compelling evidence about the extent to which pressures caused by the reforms to legal aid are impacting on legal aid professionals.

By damaging morale and undermining the legal profession’s ability to undertake legal aid work, access to justice, the rule of law and enforcement of human rights in the UK are further undermined. 

In the area of criminal law, for example, data suggests that in just 5 to 10 years’ time there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, leaving many in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.

Six years on from LASPO, it is clear the system is in crisis.

The MoJ has had the highest cuts of any department – 40% - and the impact of cuts on this scale is simply unsustainable.

The review of the changes must provide practical solutions, not just warm words.

Almost every aspect of this debacle was predicted and objected to at the time – hence the high number of defeats in the Lords, but only minor (albeit welcome) adjustments have been made. 

We are close to the end of the period in which evidence can be submitted to the government’s review, with a report promised by the end of the year.

The question is - how quickly will we get a response, how much scope is there for real reform, and how much more damage will be done to our system of access to justice even between now and then?

  • Karen Buck
    Karen Buck 

    chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on legal aid and a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights

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