Applications for the government to fund cases that fall outside the scope of legal aid reached a record at the start of the year, according to official quarterly statistics - with the Legal Aid Agency granting a record high over a three-month period. 

The exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme was introduced in April 2013, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 - which cuts vast swaths of civil law from the scope of public funding - came into force. The scheme provides funding to people whose human rights would be breached if they did not have legal aid.

The Ministry of Justice's latest legal aid statistics, covering January to March 2018, show that the Legal Aid Agency received 745 ECF applications - the highest number of applications received in a quarter since the scheme began. The agency determined 658 applications by May: it granted 390, refused 143 and rejected 108. 

The government attributes the soaring number of ECF bids over the past two years to an increase in immigration applications, which accounted for 64% of applications at the start of this year.

However, the rest of the latest government statistical report is dominated by downward trends.

In the civil sphere, legal help volumes fell in family, immigration, mental health and housing. Mediation numbers dropped to just under half of pre-LASPO levels. In the criminal sphere, legally aided representation in the magistrates' court fell by 8% between January and March compared to the same period last year, and 13% in the Crown court.

Future legal aid provision remains precarious, with the number of offices providing civil legal aid falling by a third over the last five years and an 8% fall in offices providing criminal legal aid. Practitioners are likely to take little comfort in the fact that, according to the report, the fall in civil legal aid numbers has 'slowed somewhat' over the latest year while the number of offices providing criminal work has risen by 1%.