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CILEX advocates for urgent reforms in Civil Legal Aid

CILEX advocates for urgent reforms in Civil Legal Aid


CILEX urges annual adjustments to civil legal aid thresholds, expanding coverage, and addressing systemic issues for justice

The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) is sounding an alarm for critical reforms in the civil legal aid system, emphasizing the pressing need to adapt to the evolving economic landscape. In response to the Ministry of Justice's call for evidence during its review of civil legal aid, CILEX asserts the necessity of raising annual earnings and assets thresholds, aligning them with the Consumer Price Index to counter the erosive impact of inflation.

CILEX proposes an extensive approach to tackle the identified challenges. Firstly, it advocates for the yearly increment of earnings and assets thresholds to reflect the changing economic landscape, preventing a diminishing pool of eligible individuals. The institute also recommends an expansion of civil legal aid coverage to encompass crucial areas such as employment, education, and private family law. Additionally, it calls for a holistic reassessment of the means test employed by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to ensure its reasonableness and proportionality, particularly for those with low or erratic incomes.

Responding to the Ministry of Justice's call for evidence, CILEX contends that fundamental flaws in the system are leaving vulnerable individuals without access to justice, prompting a need for comprehensive improvements. The static state of earnings and assets thresholds since 2012, coupled with inflation and wage increases, has resulted in the emergence of legal aid deserts. These deserts are marked by legal service providers withdrawing from an underfunded sector, compelling desperate individuals to seek assistance from overloaded free legal clinics, law schools, and charities struggling to meet demand.

CILEX proposes a multi-pronged strategy to address these challenges. The institute suggests tackling advice deserts by introducing "incentivised packages" for both new and existing practitioners. It also advocates for an increase in the overall civil legal aid budget, urging a return to 2012 fee levels on a real-terms case-by-case basis. Additionally, CILEX recommends the formation of a Civil Legal Aid Review Board, akin to the one overseeing criminal legal aid, to depoliticize issues and focus on building an efficient system. This proposed board would have the statutory authority to set civil legal aid fees and oversee the work of the LAA regarding civil fees.

Further recommendations include lowering thresholds for accessing advice on mediation and alternative dispute resolution and measuring the downstream impact of the lack of legal aid on entities such as local authorities, charities, the police, the NHS, and MPs.

CILEX practitioners surveyed express concerns, with 74% believing it is challenging for clients to find civil legal aid providers. Almost all respondents feel the current fee system does not incentivize lawyers to offer services, and 97% believe legal aid fees should be index-linked. Additionally, 62% argue that civil fees, stagnant since 1996, need to increase by at least 60%.

Practitioners argue that the current system is unsustainable, hindering access to justice for marginalized individuals. CILEX President Emma Davies warns of the looming collapse of the civil legal aid system and urges the government to scrutinize and reform thresholds, fee levels, and the means-tested system to ensure the availability of quality, specialist legal advice for those in dire need.