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Failing light

Failing light


The seasons may change, but statistics showing a decline in legal aid claims, the failure of mediation assessments, and rising numbers of unrepresented litigants tell the same sad story, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

Move over summer, autumn is here. As the days grow short and the weather becomes increasingly changeable, it is easy for melancholy to set in. The moods of many lawyers will not have improved after the Ministry of Justice published its latest quarterly statistics on legal aid and the family courts.

Between April and June 2016, new civil legal aid matters were 7 per cent lower than during the same period in 2015. The last quarter also saw new legally aided family law cases down 9 per cent.

There were 424 applications for exceptional funding, the highest in a single quarter for almost three years. Some 90 per cent were new applications, while 41 had been re-submitted for review. Of the applications received, immigration (51 per cent), family (20 per cent), and inquest (14 per cent) remained the most requested categories for legal assistance. Just over half were granted but, following the overturning of the High Court's ruling on the scheme's lawfulness, we can expect to see this figure plummet.

Perhaps of greater concern, however, is how more than a third of family court cases took place without legal representation of either party. The 34 per cent figure is double the number reported prior to the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. Indeed, cases where both parties benefitted from the input of a lawyer dropped from 40 per cent in 2013 to 27 per cent in the last quarter.

Although the number of certificates granted for civil representation is up 10 per cent, this was largely due to an increase in public law family certificates, with public law cases increasing by 24 per cent from 3,896 to 4,833. Similarly, the number of children involved in public law applications rose by 21 per cent to 8,972.

The failure of the much-vaunted mediation assessment (MIAMs) was also highlighted, with the number of meetings between one or both parties and a mediator down by 12 per cent compared to the previous year and around half of pre-LASPO levels. The number of starts also fell by 15 per cent.

So, the number of legal aid claims continues to tumble, MIAMs are failing to resolve disputes, unrepresented parties are filling up the courts, and public law claims are soaring. Is it surprising that in 40 per cent of cases the courts are missing the 26-week time limit for disposing of care or supervision proceedings, or that the timeline for divorce cases with financial remedy has risen by an average of four weeks?

Those at the coalface of the justice system will not be surprised to see the continued impact of LASPO laid bare before them in black and white. But in the absence of an urgent government review, lawyers might understandably look to Her Majesty's opposition for succour. At last week's Labour party conference they got just that.

The disappointing news that Lord Willy Bach's review into legal aid has been delayed until next summer was tempered by a promise from Labour's shadow justice secretary '“ former Thompsons solicitor and arch-Corbynista Richard Burgon '“ to scrap employment tribunal fees and increase legal aid spending if the party is returned to power.

Moreover, the New Statesman has revealed that Jeremy Corbyn will appoint the former Liberty director and new Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti as his shadow attorney general. With a former trade union lawyer and human rights champion leading the fight on access to justice, the new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, may be in for an uncomfortable few months ahead.

But while exchanges between the new-look justice teams are certainly tantalising, the number of legal aid claims will continue to diminish as the Tories and Labour slug it out in parliament. And though Burgon's promises on legal aid are welcome, how and where his party would find an extra £20m a year to spend remains unclear.

Convincing the British people that legal aid is a public service as important as the NHS and that Labour can be trusted with the economy might be Corbyn's biggest test to date.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD