Government publishes 'damning' report on legal aid funding
The Law Society has called for action 'before it’s too late'
The Law Society has said the report published by the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid Inquiry into the Sustainability and Recovery of the Legal Aid Sector gives a “damning verdict” on the current state of the legal aid system.
The Law Society’s head of justice, Richard Miller, welcomed the “much-needed” and “thorough” report, but said: “We echo its damning verdict on the inadequate funding of our legal aid system and the detrimental impact of that on the ability of the most vulnerable in society to access justice”.
He said the Law Society strongly supported the call for a “more holistic” approach, to enable clients to get help for a range of problems, “rather than individual issues being treated in isolation”.
Miller also welcomed the call for investment in the sector. He said: “The government must commit in the upcoming spending review to fund the legal aid system properly so that everyone – no matter their background – has access to legal aid when they are entitled to it.
“This, with measures to address the huge backlogs in civil and criminal courts, would begin to put the justice system on the long road to recovery”.
Last month, we reported on the Law Society’s warning about “catastrophic legal aid deserts” across the country. Miller said legal aid desert maps created by the Law Society “show British justice is at risk as publicly funded legal advice vanishes at a time when it is needed more than ever”.
He added: “Likewise, with a huge backlog of criminal cases to be heard and increased police numbers predicted to lead to more arrests, criminal defence lawyers are needed more than ever to provide access to justice but there are a diminishing number of criminal legal aid firms operating”.
Miller called for action “before it’s too late”.
Linda Ford, CEO of CILEX, echoed Miller’s comments. She said: “This inquiry echoes much of what many of us in the sector have been saying for some time. However, it is not just about diversity of providers at an individual level that is key, but also at a firm level”.
Ford said too many small to medium sized firms are “locked out” of legal aid contracts. She added: “For those that are able to secure these contracts, the rigidity in requirements imposed has threatened their cashflow and increased overheads. The system needs to open itself up to a wider range of smaller, more dynamic firms to improve its resilience and ability to adapt in meeting the needs of the public.
“It is encouraging to see included within the report findings, the role of court backlogs in worsening access to justice in legal aid. CILEX has long had a ready-made solution in CILEX lawyers, ready and able to help supply the justice system and help rebuild the pipeline of providers but who currently remain barred from roles such as that of Crown Prosecutor. We will continue to lobby the government on this issue.”