The Law Society has welcomed the government’s decision to begin a long-awaited review of controversial legal aid reforms, but repeated concerns about advice ‘deserts’ after a minister downplayed their impact.
Nearly four years after the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald told an all-party parliamentary group last week that the government ‘now considers enough time has passed for the reforms to have bedded in for us to begin the review process’.
The ministry plans to submit a post-legislative memorandum on LASPO to the justice select committee. This has to be done by May. The memorandum will cover the whole act, including part one.
Heald said: ‘We will look at how the act has been affected by litigation, the various reviews of legal aid done by bodies such as the National Audit Office and others. This will lead to an initial discussion as to the extent to which changes to legal aid met their objectives, which is the test for the post-legislative memorandum. Then we will begin work on the full post-implementation review of legal aid.’
Society president Robert Bourns noted that Chancery Lane has been calling for the review to begin for some time, so the impact of LASPO could be properly measured before further changes are introduced, particularly if those changes reduce access to justice for the vulnerable.
Heald told last week’s meeting he disagrees with the Society about the existence of legal aid housing advice ‘deserts’. An infographic published by the Society last year showed that nearly a third of legal aid areas have just one solicitor provider who specialises in housing and whose advice is available through legal aid.
Responding to the minister’s comments, Bourns said: ‘Even where legal aid is still available by law, the government’s failure to ensure proper provision of services means they are not meeting the standard they themselves have set, as our legal aid deserts campaign has highlighted.
‘Far from undermining the sustainability of existing providers, as the minister suggests, adding a second provider of housing legal advice is vital to ensure that those in need are not prevented from actually accessing legal advice.’
Bourns said multiple providers are important to avoid situations where conflicts of interest prevent people accessing advice. The Society will ‘continue to engage constructively with government’ on these issues.