Ministers today promised new money to fill the gaps in access to justice created by the 2013 legal aid reforms. Publishing a long-awaited review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), the Ministry of Justice announced a legal support 'action plan'. Promises include:

  • £5m for ‘innovative’ forms of legal support. Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC told journalists such support could be a Skype tool or a program that converts lengthy written arguments into an appropriate presentation which people can automatically put into a claim form;
  • £3m over two years to support litigants in person. The ministry will also test ‘legal support hubs’, which Frazer said could be in a GP setting.

The pledges acknowledge the damage done by the coalition government's decision to cut vast swaths of civil law from the scope of legal aid. However they are unlikely to assuage critics. The Bar Council described the money as 'a drop in the ocean'.  

Gauke: 'For too long legal support focused solely on funding court disputes'

Defending the reforms, Lord Chancellor David Gauke said today that part one of LASPO, which came into force in April 2013, was designed to target limited resources at the most vulnerable, following a ‘long period of expansion of legal aid’ that resulted in an annual spend of over £2bn.

Gauke said the government’s year-long review, which involved speaking to more than 100 organisations, has highlighted that ‘for too long legal support has been focused solely on funding court disputes, with less emphasis on how problems can be resolved earlier and avoid them escalating into more problematic issues that require a court visit’.

As part of the action plan the department will pilot face-to-face early legal advice in a specific area of social welfare law. Frazer told a media briefing today that this area could be housing. 

The ministry will also:

  • Review the legal aid means test (by summer 2020);
  • Bring forward proposals to expand legal aid to include separated migrant children in immigration cases (by spring 2019);
  • Bring forward proposals to expand legal aid to cover special guardianship orders in private family law (by autumn 2019);
  • Work with the Law Society to explore an ‘alternative model’ for family legal aid;
  • Consider introducing an emergency procedure for urgent matters to access the exceptional case funding scheme (by the end of 2019);
  • Remove the mandatory requirements from the telephone gateway for debt, discrimination and special educational needs, and reinstate access to immediate face-to-face advice (by spring 2020).

Following a separate review on legal aid for inquests, plans include simplifying the ECF forms and enabling backdating of the legal help waiver for inquest cases.

The findings of a review of part 2 of LASPO, designed to reduce the cost of civil litigation, encourage early settlement and discourage unmeritorious claims, is also being published today. Frazer told journalists that ‘largely people think the changes are working well’.

The Law Society said the ministry's proposals reflect a 'considerable number' of recommendations Chancery Lane put forward.

Christina Blacklaws, the Society's president, said: 'We hope these changes will make it easier for ordinary people to qualify for legal aid and access essential help and support. However, welcome as this further work is, the government must give urgent attention to amending the means test thresholds because the current levels are preventing families in poverty from accessing justice; and remuneration rates for solicitors undertaking this vital work must be reviewed for civil as well as criminal work, to address the medium term viability of the system. As a first step, they should be uprated in line with inflation ahead of further work to make the system sustainable.'

The Bar Council was quick to criticise the response, saying it was 'disappointed'. 

Richard Atkins QC, chair, said:  'Whilst we welcome the MoJ commitment to early intervention to reduce the distress and cost to all of court proceedings and the willingness to include the Bar Council and others in the proposed continuing review we consider that this is a wasted opportunity. The 500-page report offers little of substance to ease the impact of LASPO on vulnerable individuals seeking justice.

'Although up to £5m investment has been promised to improve technology for accessing legal advice and £3m over two years to help litigants in person navigate the court system, such monies are but a drop in the ocean given the impact LASPO has had on restricting individuals’ access to justice. We fully understand that the MoJ is constrained by budgetary limits, but this review provides clear evidence that the Treasury must find a way to properly fund the justice system and reverse a decade of cuts.'


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