LASPO's false economy demands urgent review
Legal aid barriers deny most vulnerable their fundamental rights, says Chancery Lane
Four years of cuts to legal aid spending have denied justice to the most vulnerable in society, hit the public purse, and damaged the foundation of the UK justice system, the Law Society has said as it calls for the government to finally review LASPO.
Implemented on 1 April 2013, LASPO introduced changes to the scope, eligibility, and rates paid for legal aid work, and resulted in significant cuts to government spending. Four years on, Chancery Lane has conducted its own review of the legislation, its impact on civil legal aid, and on the ability of citizens to defend and enforce their legal rights.
Part 1 of the Act made significant cuts to the scope of civil legal aid with the aim of cutting expenditure by £450m. However, the Law Society’s report ‘Access denied? LASPO four years on’ suggests the cuts have been a false economy, increasing pressure on public services, due to growing numbers of litigants in person, and have led to the escalation of legal problems following the removal of legal aid for early advice.
The figures are startling. In 2014 it was estimated the increase in LiPs in family courts cost the Ministry of Justice £3.4m. Research has also shown that a typical young person with a civil legal problem costs local health, housing, and social services around £13,000 if they cannot receive early advice. One estimate puts the cost of unresolved social welfare issues in young adults at £1bn a year.
Law Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘While successive governments have repeatedly cut back the legal aid budget, the reforms set out in LASPO made the most significant changes to legal aid since its introduction, denying legal aid to very many who need it.
‘Access to justice should be treated as an essential public service – equal to healthcare or education. Legal aid is a lifeline for the vulnerable. Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers money.
‘Failure to get early expert legal advice can result in problems escalating dramatically, when they could have been nipped in the bud. The cuts have led to many people facing court unrepresented, in cases where lawyers would have resolved the issues without involving the court, via mediation or negotiation.’
The demographics of legal aid recipients prior to 2012 indicate legal aid cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society, including children. MoJ data released under a freedom of information request in 2011 estimated that 75,000 children and young people (including 6,000 children under 18) would lose entitlement to legal aid each year as a result of LASPO.
Migrant children are disproportionately affected, primarily due to LASPO abolishing legal aid for most non-asylum immigration issues, the report says. The Children’s Society puts the number of children affected at 3,600 currently in local authority care, and 9,000 to 12,000 living in private fostering arrangements.
Bourns explained that cuts in legal aid for family law have put people off seeking advice and support from solicitors. Figures from the National Audit Office show a 30 per cent rise across all family court cases in which neither party had legal representation. There has also been a 22 per cent increase in cases involving contact with children in which neither party had a lawyer.
‘Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties,’ he added. ‘A properly funded legal aid system is an essential public service that ensures equal access to justice for all.’
Government data shows that large areas of the country have little or no provision of housing law advice. Almost one-third of areas in England and Wales have one or no local legal aid housing advice providers. Neither Shropshire nor Suffolk have any providers, while other areas, including Kingston upon Hull and Surrey, had no provider for a number of months, until the Legal Aid Agency took remedial action.
Chancery Lane’s report explained how ‘people now have a stark choice: to pay for their own legal advice, represent themselves, or be excluded from the justice system altogether’.
‘There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts,’ said Bourns. ‘If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.
‘Legal advice and access to justice are fundamentals for a dynamic society – one in which the powerful are held to account and the public interest promoted to protect the weak. A cohesive society in which we all have a stake.’
Prior to the prime minister’s decision to hold a snap general election in June, the previous Conservative government had promised a comprehensive post-implementation review of LASPO. Now the Law Society is calling on Theresa May’s new government to hold to that commitment.
‘Our own review is intended as a contribution to the debate on access to justice and how it can be preserved,’ said Bourns. ‘It highlights the fundamental question of how to restore and protect access to justice for everyone in the 21st century regardless of their economic circumstances.’
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal