The government has today published its response to MPs' concerns about the 'damaging' effects of legal aid reforms on human rights, painting a rosier picture than found by members of the joint committee on human rights.
In its Enforcing Human Rights report, published in July, the committee highlighted concerns about the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which is currently being reviewed by the government. The committee, chaired by former solicitor Harriet Harman MP, found that the impact of LASPO on access to civil legal aid has been 'dramatic' since it came into force in 2013. The situation now facing firms conducting criminal legal aid work is 'severe'.
The committee urged the government to consider widening the financial eligibility criteria to a larger proportion of the population.
In reponse the ministry says means testing is a 'vital mechanism' to protect legal aid for those who need it most while ensuring those who are able to contribute do: 'The post-implementation review will be making an assessment of the impact of applying the capital eligibility test to all legal aid applicants. It is important that we do not prejudice the outcome by speculating on possible changes at this point.'
The committee pointed out that the government's exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme was supposed to support up to 7,000 cases per year but, in reality, only funds hundreds. The ministry says the number of people granted funding has risen over the years. Of the 746 applications received by the Legal Aid Agency between January and March this year, 658 were determined and 390 were granted. 'We are constantly improving our training and guidance to ensure that people are able to effectively access legal aid via the ECF Scheme. Alongside this work to support applicants, the post-implementation review will be assessing the extent to which the introduction of the ECF system has achieved its implementation objectives,' the ministry says.
Concerned by the fall in the number of people calling the government's mandatory telephone gateway for civil legal advice in education and discrimination matters, the ministry was asked whether the gateway is effective, sufficiently accessible and readily navigable.
The ministry says the extent to which the gateway provides accessible and cost-effective advice will be covered in the review. After receiving insufficient compliant tenders to provide special educational needs and discrimination services, the ministry has extended the two existing SEN contracts and one existing discrimination contract by up to two years, and procured two additional discrimination providers.
The ministry does not directly address the committee's concerns about morale among legal aid practitioners, focusing on provision instead. The ministry says the LAA frequently reviews market capacity and 'moves quickly' to address gaps in provision. More than 1,700 organisations submitted over 4,300 bids to provide face-to-face civil legal aid work. However, the ministry fails to mention the debacle that affected hundreds of providers who were without new contracts hours before they were due to begin.