The Law Society is calling for a root-and-branch overhaul of civil legal aid provision to help repair the damage inflicted by deep cuts four years ago.
In a report* published today, Chancery Lane says spending and eligibility curbs implemented through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have denied justice to the vulnerable, created chaos in the courts and shifted costs to other state agencies - including the NHS.
The Society also urges the new government to get on with the post-implementation review of LASPO set in train earlier this year by now departed justice minister Sir Oliver Heald. The review was aborted by the general election.
LASPO removed lawyers from the justice process to save £450m a year. But this has proved a ‘false economy’ by deterring people from seeking early advice and shunting problems elsewhere, the Society alleges.
President Robert Bourns said: ‘The demographics of legal aid recipients before 2012 clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society. Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers’ money.’
He added: ’Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties.’
The Society’s report partly echoes widespread criticism of the reforms from other influential quarters, including the Commons justice committee of MPs. In 2015 the committee reported that the changes had led to a ‘substantial’ increase in litigants in person, growing pressure on the courts, a fall in mediation and reports of ‘advice deserts’.
The timing of Chancery Lane’s own review is opportune, with media commentators questioning whether the restriction of legal aid in housing may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
The report points out that some housing cases are no longer eligible for legal aid, adding that ‘people now have a stark choice: to pay for their own legal advice, represent themselves, or be excluded from the justice system altogether’. Bourns added: ’There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.’
The report contains 25 recommendations for reform and restitution of civil legal aid provision (below). These include: reviewing and uprating the means test; commissioning an independent review of the system’s sustainability; and reinstating legal aid for early advice in family cases.
* Access Denied? LASPO four years on: a Law Society review
Access Denied? Recommendations
- Update exceptional funding guidance to reflect right of children to access legal aid
- Reinstate legal aid for parties involved in Special Guardianship Order applications
- Review and routinely uprate civil legal aid means test for inflation and cost of living
- Scrap capital means test for people on means-tested welfare benefits
- Independently review sustainability of civil legal aid system
- Commission second housing advice provider in areas with only one
- Better advertise legal aid availability
- Delegate power to solicitors to confirm a client is victim of domestic abuse
- Give frontline domestic violence support bodies power to confirm when individual is victim
- Scrap deadline for legal aid applications through Domestic Violence Gateway
- Remove requirement to access debt, SEN and discrimination law through Telephone Gateway; reinstateimmediate access to face-to-face advice
- Promote civil legal aid advice line and review operator service to examine low level of referrals
- Reinstate Family Help Level 1 for early advice (estimated cost £14m)
- Monitor use of mediation and consider further action; fund MIAMS for a year
- Simplify Exceptional Case Funding forms and ease approval process
- Pay solicitors fair fixed fee for completing ECF form whether application is granted or not
- Review and simplify applications for representation at inquests
- Improve data collected by courts on LIPs
- Return to scope early advice for housing benefit, rent arrears and mortgage problems