The government has refused to confirm when it will commence a long-promised review of its controversial legal aid reforms on the same day yet another advice desert was highlighted by the Legal Aid Agency.
Justice minister Lord Keen Of Elie told the House of Lords that the precise timing of a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) is ‘currently under consideration’.
The ministry will announce its intentions ‘in due course’, he added.
The ministry pledged to review LASPO three to five years after the act was implemented in April 2013.
Keen was responding to a question from Labour peer Lord Beecham, who was disappointed that the government had ‘not yet decided when to carry out its promise’ despite four-and-a-half years passing since the act’s royal assent.
Beecham told the justice minister that he had been contacted that day by a young woman ‘in great distress’ who was in the middle of a custody case with her child’s father, who is legally represented.
The house cheered in agreement when crossbencher Lord Woolf (former master of the rolls Harry Woolf) told Keen that what was happening in relation to legal aid ‘is damaging the reputation of our justice system’.
‘Judges up and down the country are finding it difficult to administer justice,’ he added.
However, Keen reminded his fellow peers that LASPO did not lead to any sudden introduction of unrepresented litigants in the context of family courts and cases, noting that almost two-thirds of family cases had at least one unrepresented litigant prior to the reforms coming into force in April 2013.
He added that legal aid remains available where it is most needed ‘having regard to the financial demands that fall on the country in more areas than just legal aid’.
Keen’s comments came on the day it emerged that the Legal Aid Agency is urgently trying to plug a hole in the provision of housing and debt services in the Cambridgeshire procurement area.
Firms have been invited to submit an ‘expression of interest’ to deliver legal aid housing and debt services after the agency identified ‘an issue with access’.
The invitation states that there are 210 matter starts in housing. Those who are awarded work will also receive four matter starts in debt per year.
The latest invitation is the third the agency has issued in the past seven months, after access issues were identified in Kingston upon Hull and Surrey.
In July, the Law Society produced a shocking infographic showing that nearly a third of legal aid areas had only one solicitor provider who specialises in housing and whose advice is available through legal aid.
Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk had no housing provider.