A south-west law centre was forced to turn away up to 4,000 people needing legal advice or support last year, according to a report by Amnesty International on the impact of the government’s legal aid reforms.
Clare Carter (pictured), director of Avon and Bristol Law Centre, told the human rights group that the cases the centre was taking ‘are just the tip of the iceberg’.
She said: ’Demand is high and resources are low, so now we only take the people who are the most destitute, who face the most barriers. Ethically that is incredibly difficult for staff here, to think this person hasn’t quite reached rock bottom so we turn them away.’
The centre tries to signpost to others who can help, but Carter said there are not many places for them to go. ’In the last 12 months we have turned 2,000-4,000 people away. It’s getting worse and worse,’ she is quoted as saying.
With growing calls for the government to review the impact of its 2013 cuts - which it has pledged to do by April 2018 - Amnesty International conducted its own review.
The project was carried out over nine months, speaking to 30 people not eligible for legal aid after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force, and 90 individuals or organisations who provide legal advice.
Amnesty International delegates also spent five days shadowing volunteers at the Personal Support Unit at the Royal Courts of Justice and the Central Family Court.
Calling for the government’s exceptional case funding scheme to be overhauled, the report highlights the case of 'Jane' who was trying to secure immigration status for her and her family, including four children born in the UK. Two of her sons have been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, and one child is non-verbal. 'Jane' rang the government’s legal aid telephone gateway and was eventually given a list of solicitors to call. They told her she was not entitled to legal aid and so they could not take on her case.
A non-governmental organisation working with families in extreme poverty referred Jane to a law centre to make an exceptional case funding scheme on her behalf. The application was refused in December 2015. Her case was referred on to another law centre which decided to resubmit an application for exceptional case funding. In July, the Home Office reversed its initial decision.
'Jane' told Amnesty: ’To get any immigration help is very, very hard. Some people when I called, would say I don’t do that anymore. Others who still do were saying it would cost thousands of pounds. Even if I prostitute myself, I could not be able to get this. It’s really really tough. I can’t do it without help.’
Amnesty recommends that children and young people be entitled to legal aid, regardless of the legal issue at stake.
Other recommendations include ensuring family reunification cases are entitled to legal aid and abandoning plans to introduce a residence test.
Law Society president Robert Bourns said today’s report was the latest in a growing body of evidence highlighting serious concerns about the adverse consequences of LASPO.
Bourns added: 'We know that the Ministry of Justice is already working constructively to seek to address the practical problems faced by victims of domestic violence and we welcome that the lord chancellor has stressed the importance of a justice system which is proportionate and accessible. We would urge the government to address some of the other difficulties arising under LASPO.
’Amnesty’s recommendations reflect many of the concerns the Society has been expressing, particularly in relation to the value of early legal advice, the barriers faced by victims of domestic violence, and the problems around the operation of the exceptional funding scheme.’