A Conservative MP and member of the House of Commons justice select committee has urged his party not to ignore alarm bells ringing in the civil justice system and restore legal aid for early advice.
Writing on the Conservative Home website, Alex Chalk, who practised for 14 years as a barrister before being elected for Cheltenham, says the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act was passed when ministers 'were forced to respond to the disastrous financial position they inherited'.
The act came into force in April 2013 after facing significant hurdles in the House of Lords and passing by the narrowest of margins. LASPO was intended to reduce the legal aid budget by £450m but has gone further than originally intended. Last year Bob Neill, chair of the select committee, acknowledged that the coalition government went 'too far' in its reforms.
Chalk said: 'There is now a serious concern that, without some steps to restore a measure of access to justice, serious injustice will inevitably follow. It would be unacceptable if deserving individuals, with right on their side, found themselves the victim of rough justice (even perhaps street justice) because they were unable to get legal advice or settle their case in court. It goes against the kind of country we are.
'And as the Liam Allan rape case showed, it is often only when dreadful injustices hit the headlines that the media sit up and take notice. The British people were rightly horrified to learn that an innocent man had spent two years on bail charged with rape, only for the prosecution case to collapse because vital evidence had not been disclosed by the prosecution. But without such a case, the justice system is taken for granted and its basic fairness is assumed.'
Chalk warned that alarm bells that ring in advance 'don't tend to be heard' and are ringing again in the civil justice system.
He listed two 'proportionate, cost-effective, measures' that would improve access to justice 'without blowing a hole in the public finances'.
Calling for legal aid to be restored for early advice, the MP said that 'relatively simple problems' are left to escalate, which will cost more money to fix. For instance, disrepair issues can lead to health problems, which the NHS will have to pick up the tab for.
The 'strict' financial eligibility requirements for legal aid should also be updated, Chalk said, observing that civil legal aid was available for 80% of the country in 1980 but under 20% now.
He said: 'Pensioners are some of the worst affected by the outdated means test. Even modest savings disqualify them from legal aid. The effect is that a vulnerable pensioner unlawfully denied basic care may well have to pay for a lawyer out of their own pocket. Legal aid doesn’t only fund a lawyer but also provides protection from paying the other side’s costs. Without legal aid, that vulnerable pensioner would be forced to take on a financial risk just to access justice. That is troubling.'
Chalk said he was confident that the Ministry of Justice will adopt an evidence-based approach to its legal aid review. 'If the evidence shows that LASPO is creating costs for the taxpayer or is unacceptably restricting access to justice, adjustments will need to be made,' he added.