New research shows that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) has had a devastating effect on access to justice, the Bar Council has told the government. It calls for urgent steps to restore legal aid to family and some civil proceedings.
The representative body said that five years after the act came into force it has done the opposite of what the government set out to achieve. Part 1 of LASPO and its subordinate legislation have produced a regime which impedes the public’s access to justice, jeopardises the efficient operation of the justice system, and damages the future of the publicly-funded legal professions.
In responding to calls from the Ministry of Justice for evidence ahead of its review of LASPO, the Bar Council released research which shows a worrying picture on the front line of the justice system five years after LASPO came into force.
Barristers were surveyed and interviewed by the Bar Council. The research found that:
- More than 91% of respondents reported the number of individuals struggling to get access to legal advice and representation had increased or risen significantly;
- 91% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of litigants in person (members of the public attempting to represent themselves in court) in family cases; and 77% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of litigants in person in civil cases;
- 77% saw a significant delay in family court cases because of the increase in litigants in person;
- Almost 25% of respondents have stopped doing legal aid work; and
- 48% of barristers surveyed do less legal aid work than before.
Andrew Walker QC, chair of the bar, said: ’LASPO has failed. Whilst savings have been made to the Ministry of Justice’s budget spreadsheets, the government is still unable to show that those savings have not been diminished or extinguished, or even outweighed, by knock-on costs to other government departments, local authorities, the NHS and other publicly funded organisations.
’Nor do we accept that the reforms have discouraged unnecessary or adversarial litigation, or ensured that legal aid is targeted at those who need it, both of which the Act was billed as seeking to achieve. If anything, LASPO has had the opposite effect, and has denied access to the justice system for individuals and families with genuine claims, just when they need it the most.’
In its response, the Bar Council calls for the following, as steps that need to be taken urgently and as a priority:
- Crime: reverse the “innocence tax” upon those acquitted of criminal offences who are unable fully to recover the reasonable costs of a privately funded defence;
- Family: reintroduce legal aid in a range of family law proceedings, including for respondents facing allegations of domestic abuse and for private law children proceedings;
- Civil: reintroduce a legal help scheme for welfare benefit cases;
- Coroner inquests: relax the criteria for exceptional case funding where the death occurred in the care of the state and the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested persons; and
- Means testing: introduce a simplified and more generous calculation of disposable income and capital so that the eligibility threshold, and contribution requirements, are no longer an unaffordable barrier to justice.