The government today ignored calls for an urgent review of the impact of civil legal aid reforms.
Last week the House of Commons justice committee made a damning assessment of the implementation of and response to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which took much of civil justice out of the scope of legal aid.
The Law Society has since called for an ‘urgent and essential’ review into the changes, and the government was pressed by shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan to agree to this demand during justice questions in the commons today.
In response, justice minister Shailesh Vara told the chamber it was ‘regrettable’ that Labour was attacking the government's position while not committing to any reversal of legal aid cuts.
Vara told MPs that the government has made sure to provide legal aid assistance for those who need it, particularly those in abusive relationships.
When questioned on the number of domestic violence victims who have had legal aid funding stopped because evidence was more than two years old, Vara said there had been a ‘huge amount of misunderstanding’ about the eligibility of legal aid, not least because of ‘misinformation’ from the opposition.
He added: ‘On two occasions we have increased the criteria on the required evidence, once during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and subsequently when we found that more evidence was required.’
During an often fractious final justice questions of this parliament, the government was also asked to comment on the issue of exceptional case funding, which was intended by LASPO to act as a safety net for meritorious cases to be given funding.
The justice committee report said the MoJ has estimated 5,000-7,000 applications would be made each year, of which around 3,700 would be granted.
But figures from the Legal Aid Agency showed that 151 (7.2%) of the 2,090 applications made between April 2013 and September 2014 were approved.
Vara told the commons: ‘As far as exceptional funding is concerned, the giveaway is in the title. The fund is meant to be exceptional, but some people have seen it as a discretionary fund. Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers involved in it have been few.’