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Bar Council report claims LASPO 2012 is damaging access to justice

Applications to the Bar Pro Bono Unit increase nearly 50 per cent in 12 months

18 September 2014

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The increased number of litigants in person is placing unprecedented pressures on courts and voluntary services, according to a new report from the representative body of barristers in England and Wales.

The Bar Council report, LASPO: One Year On, is based on interviews and a survey of legal practitioners, assessing the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 on the system of justice a year after its implementation.

Chairman of the Bar Council, Nicholas Lavender QC, pictured, said: "There is a clear consensus between barrister and frontline service provider interviewees that LASPO has had a significant detrimental impact on access to justice. Much of what we feared about LASPO has come to pass. Individuals dealing with life-changing legal issues are denied fair access to justice if they cannot afford it."

The report found that since the introduction of LASPO, the number of people with access to free legal representation is lower than it has been since legal aid was introduced in 1949. Areas of law excluded from legal aid include child custody, divorce, employment, education, debt, housing, welfare law and immigration.

The Bar Council report found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents who work within the family courts and 70 per cent of respondents who work within the civil courts have reported an increase in self-representation.

Lavender commented: "A rise in self-representation is clogging the courts and creating additional costs to the tax payer, free frontline legal advisors are creaking under the strain, pro bono lawyers cannot cope with the demand, and the safety net the government created for providing legal aid in 'exceptional cases' is not fit for purpose."

Pro bono

The Bar Council believe that more research is needed and has urged the government to collect more data on litigants in person and their effect on the courts, to simplify the documents which they are required to complete, and to work with voluntary agencies to direct litigants in person to available support.

According to the report, LASPO has led to more people relying on limited pro bono services. Between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014, applications to the Bar Pro Bono Unit increased by nearly 50 per cent. One frontline free legal service provider said: "We are seeing a 40 per cent increase, and one month an 80 per cent increase, in applications and that is massive. It means a lot more people are going to go unassisted."

LASPO: One Year On also highlights that, while the Ministry of Justice estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 applications a year would be made for legal aid in 'exceptional circumstances', with the majority of applications being granted, the reality shows that between April 2013 and March 2014 only 1,519 applications for exceptional funding were made, and just 57 granted.

The Bar Council has urged the government to change the criteria for funding cases which now fall outside of legal aid because of LASPO in order to include cases of 'significant wider public interest' and of 'overwhelming importance to the client'.