Aspiration or commitment?
By Pippa Allsop
The government’s legal support grant for litigants in person does not fulfil on its commitments, as Pippa Allsop explains
In spring 2020, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) launched its new £3.1m legal support grant for litigants in person (LIPs).
The grant was described as a key milestone in the MoJ’s legal action plan, which was published in February 2019 following its post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
The funding will be spread over a period of two years, delivered in partnership with the Access to Justice Foundation; and will be awarded directly to selected individual organisations providing LIPs with support services through our legal system.
The legal action plan identified that “the ability of individuals to resolve their legal problems is vital to a just society and is a fundamental principle underpinning the rule of law”; and acknowledged that legal aid plays an important role in achieving this.
However, the MoJ concluded that the “efficient and accessible provision of legal aid… is only one part of the picture” and sought to extol the benefits of “a range of complimentary legal support” as an alternative to extending the availability of legal aid support to those in need.
There is no doubt that in the last decade there has been a marked increase in the numbers of people considering opting to ‘do it themselves’ in terms of legal processes where possible.
In some areas, the government’s streamlining of services – for example, the online divorce offering – has helped those people easily undertake what may have previously appeared to be a costly process navigable only by solicitors.
Such user-focused initiatives are a positive development.
This positive, however, should not distract from the real reason behind the rise of LIPs in recent years, which is necessity.
For years, lawyers have witnessed first hand the devastating impact of the introduction of LASPO.
In family law, there is no question that a two-tier legal system has been created, where a chasm divides those who can afford legal support and those who can’t.
There are obvious and serious ramifications for the numerous individuals in the latter category.
In addition to the critical and immediate problem of the lack of access to justice, the rise in the number of LIPs has had a knock-on effect on our already overburdened courts.
Putting deliberately vexatious LIPs aside, even the most well-meaning LIPs require greater judicial guidance and case management, causing further cost and delay.
In January 2016, a research briefing paper published by the House of Commons categorically concluded that in introducing LASPO, the MoJ had “failed to meet three out of its four stated objectives for the reforms and, while making significant savings, had damaged access to justice for some litigants”.
While the word ‘some’ may sound synonymous with ‘few’, those on the ground know this is simply not the case.
Three years on, the legal action plan insisted that the government is “committed to protecting and ensuring access to justice”.
While that is undeniably a fine aspiration, many in the legal sphere would quite understandably maintain they have continually failed to deliver.
Sadly, it is not difficult to decipher the clear subtext to government’s stated aim in the legal action plan of exploring “different and innovative ways of supporting people”.
In terms of restoring access to legal aid and, therefore, true access to justice, it’s obvious there is still no intention to return to the way things once were.
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com