MPs voiced concern over the ‘cult of the amateur’ lawyer as they heard that thousands of vulnerable people are falling through the net of legal aid funding following cuts.
Law Society deputy vice-president Andrew Caplen, Bar Council chair Nicholas Lavender QC and Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, were giving evidence this morning to the House of Commons Justice Committee on the impact of the civil legal aid cuts under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
They highlighted as particular concerns the failings of the exceptional funding system, complex eligibility rules and forms, an over-restrictive domestic violence gateway threshold and the impact of family legal aid on children who are denied contact with a parent.
Caplen (pictured) said the ‘dramatic fall’ in legal help means thousands are ‘falling through the net’.
All three warned of the dangers of untrained, uninsured and unregulated professional McKenzie friends, who have emerged to fill the gap as people are left without access to proper legal advice and representation.
Beck told the committee that McKenzie friends give only the ‘illusion of equality of arms’ while Lavender said judges need to be stricter in not allowing paid McKenzie friends to speak in court.
MPs expressed concern at the growing phenomenon. Conservative MP Steve Brine called it the ‘cult of the amateur’, which Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said is a ‘dangerous scenario’.
MPs were also concerned at the evidence given on the low figures for the grants of exceptional funding, intended to be a safety net for cases no longer within the scope of public funding.
The witnesses told the committee that since LASPO came into force, there have been 1,520 applications, against the government’s expected 5-7,000, with only 69 granted.
Of these 53 were for inquests and only 16 for civil legal aid cases. The witnesses said the scheme is complex and confusing, the application form takes hours to complete, the threshold is too high, and the Legal Aid Agency is not exercising its discretion.
Labour MP John McDonnell responded saying: ‘It’s not a problem; it’s a nightmare.’
Caplen proposed that solicitors, as officers of the court, should be able to self-certify exceptional funding cases.
The committee will hear further evidence and report towards the end of the year.