The message that legal aid remains for many areas of law is not being heard. A new poster campaign aims to address the problem.
Legal aid is still available – but it seems that the government is not enthusiastic for the public to get the message.
Since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April, which removed legal aid for huge swathes of advice areas, the take up of legal aid for cases that remain in scope has been much less than the Legal Aid Agency expected.
Hugh Barrett, the agency’s director of commissioning told the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference that the take up of legal aid was significantly lower than the LAA had expected post-LASPO.
Last month, the Gazette reported that referrals to family mediation – the government’s flagship solution to the removal of legal aid – had plummeted in the three months from April to June 2013.
The number of couples attending MIAMS (mediation information and assessment meetings) fell by 47% and the number of referrals to family mediation dropped by an average of 26%.
Whatever the government claims about information being available on its website and through the telephone gateway, the message that legal aid remains for many areas of civil and all criminal law is not getting through.
A cynic might suggest this is what the government wants, keeping provision a secret will allow the Ministry of Justice to keep more money in its ever-shrinking kitty and give it the opportunity to claim that the demand for legal aid is falling, so it is right to cut funding.
The problem with this strategy is that it means many people are missing out on legal advice and being denied access to justice to enforce their rights.
It has been left to the Legal Aid Practitioners Group to step in to help rectify the situation. The organisation, which operates on a tiny budget, has paid a designer to put together a poster informing potential clients about the areas of law that are still eligible for legal aid.
Printing company Rap Spiderweb produced an initial print run of the posters for free and firms and advice centres can pay for additional copies to display.
All credit to the LAPG for producing it – it is undoubtedly a useful tool to help clients understand their entitlement to legal aid, but surely this should have been done by the government.
Catherine Baksi is a Gazette reporter