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Justice Select Committee: LASPO failed to target help where needed

Allegations that those eligible for legal aid were unable to access it are 'entirely untrue', says MoJ

12 March 2015

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Government cuts in eligibility for civil legal aid has significantly impacted on some of the most vulnerable in society and has not achieved value for money for the taxpayer, a damning report from the Commons Justice Select Committee has found.

Considering the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, the committee agreed that the government had achieved its aim of substantially reducing the civil legal aid budget.

However, in a critical indictment of government policy, the Justice Select Committee concluded that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had failed to provide legal aid to those who needed it most, had not discouraged unnecessary litigation at public expense, and could not show it was delivering value for money for the taxpayer.

Committee chair Sir Alan Beith MP said: 'The urgency of the financial situation in which this country found itself in 2010 meant that the MoJ was faced with difficult decisions: making £2bn of savings from a budget of £9.8bn was clearly a very challenging target and it was successfully achieved. But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.

'Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research, a better evidence base to work from, and better public information about the reforms. It is vitally important that the MoJ work to remedy this from now on, so that a review of the policy can be undertaken.' 

In addition, the report found a significant underspend in the legal aid budget because of a failure by the MoJ to ensure those eligible were able to access it.

The committee said this was partly due to a lack of public information and recommended that the MoJ take prompt steps to redress the situation.

The committee also concluded that the exceptional cases funding scheme, which was supposed to act as a 'safety net', has not worked as parliament intended. The MoJ was, therefore, urged to react quickly and ensure the scheme fulfilled parliament's aim.

The MoJ has, however, refuted the claims made by the report: 'It is entirely untrue to allege people who are eligible for legal aid under LASPO did not get it,' a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also remarked that the legal aid budget, which stands at around £1.5bn a year, will remain one of the most generous in the world after reform, and that civil legal aid has been protected so as to remain available where life or liberty is at stake.

Unlawful plans

The report goes on to recommend that the MoJ review the impact of the legal aid changes on children's rights and consider how to ensure that separated and trafficked children are able to access justice.

Professor Carolyn Hamilton, director of research and international programmes at Coram Children's Legal Centre (CCLC), said: 'We have seen children unable to enforce the rights and protections that the law provides to them. We cannot leave children to navigate a complex legal system all on their own. It also needs to be recognised that legal charities and law firms need to be paid for the work they do for children if they are to survive: the exceptional funding scheme must be reformed and the most urgent cases should be brought back into the scope of legal aid, including separated children's immigration cases.'

Hamilton also urged the government to abandon its 'unlawful plan' to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid.

Denying help

The Law Society has backed the committee's call for a review of the civil legal aid reforms.

'This report adds to the growing dossier of evidence proving that the legal aid changes have failed to meet the government's own objectives,' said Law Society president, Andrew Caplen.

The committee said it remained concerned that a large proportion of domestic violence victims are unable to provide the types of evidence required to prove that they are eligible for legal aid, and specifically pointed to the strict requirement that evidence be no more than two years old. It was the committee's belief that such matters should be left to the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency.

'There is no doubt that people are being denied access to justice,' he added. 'Recent research has shown that many domestic violence victims are being failed by the system as they face tough evidence requirements before they can even receive advice and assistance under the legal aid scheme. This goes far beyond what Parliament ever intended.'

The report highlights that even in instances where parliament intended for legal aid to be available, the justice system is simply not working, denying the public the help they need.

Referencing the recent increase in court fees, Caplen continued: 'The Ministry of Justice need to pause and consider the impact of its policies on access to justice, the taxpayer and the wider economy.'

Bureaucratic hurdles

Also responding to the report was Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) who, having giving evidence to the committee, said: 'The report confirms what legal aid practitioners know - that victims of domestic violence cannot get the help or protection that they need.

'It is difficult, almost impossible for many people in crisis to obtain legal advice because of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. The cuts to the legal aid system have resulted in barriers to justice for ordinary people, without proper analysis or planning by the Ministry of Justice.'

Nicola Mackintosh QC (Hon), co-chair of LAPG, added: 'The serious failings disclosed by the committee's report emphasise the urgent need for action to ensure that legal aid is there for people who need it. Swift changes are needed so that vulnerable people do not fall through the net.'

Resolution called on the next government to undertake a thorough review of the cuts and take action to make the necessary reforms.

David Emmerson, co-chair of the group's legal aid committee, remarked: 'We've even heard of people being subjected to the horrendous experience facing the courts without legal support, only to be cross-examined directly by their abuser. Surely the government did not intend this situation, which amounts to a perpetuation of abuse, as a consequence of the legal aid cuts.'

Blind eye

The report also said that there had been a sharp reduction in the use of mediation due to the end of compulsory mediation assessment, the removal of solicitors from the process and the lack of clear advice all contributed to the problem.

The chief executive of National Family Mediation (NFM), Jane Robey, who was also called to give evidence, claimed that ministers had turned a blind eye to the devastating impact the cuts would have on those in need of justice.

'Ministers try to justify the changes on the grounds of cost-cutting, but it is the failure to provide the public with information on alternative ways of pursuing justice that is really inexcusable,' argued Robey.

'The savings made from the Legal Aid budget must be offset against the massive extra expense of extended court proceedings. People wrongly believe their only option in the absence of legal aid is to head to court and represent themselves, creating huge logjams in the system.'

She added: 'The tragedy is that we, and others working on the front-line, told the government this is exactly what would happen. They didn't heed the warnings. Ministers might as well have had their fingers in their ears, shouting "I'm not listening".'

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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