Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, recently announced that the government would soon confirm the time-table for the post legislative review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). There has been growing pressure on ministers for some time to announce this (see “Back to the drawing board”, 166 NLJ 7698 13 May 2016, p 6). The Legal Action Group (LAG) hopes that the review will be used as an opportunity by the still relatively new team at the top of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to look at funding the provision of early advice in civil legal cases.
In recent months there has been a flurry of damming reports on the civil legal aid cuts. Perhaps the most notable of these has been the Amnesty report published in October. Amnesty is better know for its work in exposing injustice abroad, but expressed deep concerns in its report, The impact of legal aid cuts, about the situation in England and Wales saying the LASPO Act cuts to legal aid had “stripped away a vital element of support for a fair and just legal system”.
Staggering drop in legal aid
Most recently, the Labour Party has published its interim report on access to justice in which it noted the “staggering drop” of nearly 50% in the number of legal aid cases after the implementation of the changes to the scope of legal aid in April 2013 (see “Bach for good”, Jon Robins, 166 NLJ 7726, p7). Adding its voice to the growing clamour for the government to look again at the cuts it imposed on civil legal aid, last month LAG published Justice in freefall. This report, by Lucy Logan Green and James Sandbach at LAG, brings together statistical and other evidence on the impact of the changes to legal aid and argues that the civil justice system is in freefall due to the lack of availability of legal advice for members of the public who cannot afford to pay for it.
In its most startling finding, our report shows that basic advice funded by legal aid has now dropped by 75% since the implementation of the LASPO cuts in April 2013 and is continuing to fall. This type of legal aid, know as legal help, bore the brunt of the cuts. People with common civil legal problems, such as difficulties in claiming the benefits they are entitled to, coping with debts or, with problems at work, have nowhere to turn since these cases were cut from the scope of the legal aid scheme. LAG’s report also reveals that even for legal problems still covered by civil legal aid there have been drastic reductions in the take-up of the scheme. This is mainly caused, we believe, by the reduction in solicitors and advice centres available to take on cases.
The crisis in the provision of legal aid services is illustrated by the lack of availability of expert advice on housing law. Legal aid to assist people who are in danger of losing their home due to rent arrears or other reasons is still available, but statistics from the MoJ show that over the last year the number of housing cases has reduced by 18%. Research published by the Law Society in August this year demonstrated that in some areas of the country, for example Suffolk and Shropshire, there were no solicitors or advice agencies providing legal aid in housing cases. Also, in around a third of areas only one housing legal aid supplier was available.
Overall, due to LASPO, there has been a 25% decline in the number of solicitors undertaking civil legal aid work. The cuts to civil legal aid have had an even more brutal impact on the Not for Profit (NfP) advice centres. As discussed in our report they lost 77% of their income from legal aid due to the cuts to legal help. Research published by the MoJ shows that these and other budget cuts have led to an over 50% reduction in the number of centres in recent years (source: Survey of not for profit legal advice providers in England and Wales, MoJ (2015)).
Legal aid was conspicuous by its absence from the government’s paper Transforming Our Justice System which was published in September last year. This paper promises a £1bn cash injection to modernise the courts and tribunals system. In launching the document Liz Truss stated that the government wants to create “a justice system that works for everyone”. The problem is that most members of the public with a civil legal problem will never get anywhere near a court or tribunal without the sort of initial advice legal help paid for. LAG would suggest that, if the government is serious about access to justice it needs to put back capacity into the system so that these people can get early advice on their legal problems. Otherwise a situation will continue in which only a few people get help when they get to court and the many more thousands with civil legal problems are ignored by policy makers.