Lawyers have called for an overhaul of the system of exceptional funding for cases denied legal aid after Ministry of Justice figures revealed only 35 applications were granted in the nine months following its introduction.
The scheme was intended to be a safety net for claimants whose cases fell outside the scope of civil legal aid following the cuts implemented by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Statistics released by the MoJ today show that from 1 April, the date the scheme was introduced, to 31 December 2013, a total of 1,151 applications for exceptional funding were made to the Legal Aid Agency.
Of those, 1,083 were determined, resulting in funding being granted in 35 cases (3% of cases).
The majority of those, 21, were inquests, which lawyers suggest would usually have received funding in any event.
Family and immigration were the most frequent categories of law for applications.
Of the 617 applications in the family category, eight were granted, while only three of the 187 applications made in immigration cases were granted.
The number of applications received falls well below the 5-7,000 predicted by the ministry during the legal aid bill’s passage through parliament.
Steve Hynes, director of justice charity the Legal Action Group told the Gazette the system is not operating as the human rights safety net that it was billed as being and called for its overhaul.
‘The figures are shocking, but they are what we predicted. Across the board the LAA is taking a too strict and bureaucratic line. It is not concerned with access to justice, but about trying to control the budget.’
Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group Carol Storer (pictured) agreed: ‘There is a huge gulf between what was said in parliament about the scheme being a safety net and what the figures show. It is not a safety net at all.’
Storer said the complex scheme sets a restrictive test that is too hard to satisfy.
In addition, she said solicitors are only paid to make the lengthy applications, which take around an hour to complete, if they are successful in gaining funding.
She predicted the low figures will mean that even fewer applications are made.
The ministry denied that the system was flawed. A spokeswoman said: 'Every application is carefully considered by the LAA and we believe the system is working effectively.'
She said the LAA is monitoring its operation and will consider any issues raised. 'We do not accept that the system is overly bureaucratic. There is a bespoke application form to fill in which is designed to help providers present the relevant information.
'In addition, clients can also ask for provisional determination directly from the LAA concerning their case, if they wish to.'