Sir Oliver Heald QC outlines LASPO review timetable
Justice minister working â€˜within straitjacket' of UK's finances
Sir Oliver Heald QC has set out the government’s timetable for a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
At Tuesday’s all-party parliamentary group meeting on legal aid, the justice minister said a post-legislative memorandum on LASPO will be sent to the justice select committee before May, ahead of a full post-implementation review of the Act to be conducted by April 2018.
‘[The memorandum] will look at how the Act has been affected by litigation, how it was implemented, and will consider the various reviews of legal aid that have taken place since LASPO, by bodies such as the National Audit Office and others,’ said Sir Oliver. ‘This will lead to an initial assessment of the extent to which changes to legal aid met their objectives, which is the test for a post-legislative memorandum.’
Sir Oliver said the government intended to work closely with the sector’s stakeholders over the course of the full post-implementation review in order to inform its conclusions. ‘We intend to outline our plans in more detail about a review when we present the memorandum to parliament. What we envisage is that the memorandum and review will provide us with a robust evidence-based picture of the current legal aid landscape and how it has changed since LASPO.’
Cuts to legal aid have left many without access to justice. Recent research from Legal Action Group found that civil legal help is operating at approximately one-quarter of pre-LASPO levels, and is continuing to drop.
Amnesty International described the legislation as having ‘decimated’ justice, and highlighted that the number of civil cases granted legal aid dropped 46 per cent in a year – from 925,000 to 497,000 – following the introduction of LASPO.
Sir Oliver said legal aid was ‘a fundamental pillar’ of the justice system and acknowledged that the ‘substantial’ reforms arose from ‘some very difficult decisions to be made in an unprecedented financial challenge to the government’.
One of the effects of reduced legal aid is the rise in the number of litigants in person, which has caused an increase in court delays. The justice minister, whose brief includes the courts, said that since 2015 the MoJ has provided £3.5m towards the LiP support strategy, which has been developed in partnership with the voluntary and pro bono sector.
He paid tribute to the Civil Justice Council, LawWorks, and the Family Solution Initiative for their work assisting litigants, and stressed the importance of improving public legal education and digitising the court process. ‘It is the interplay between the technology and the information giving that can give us a very positive way forward. It’s one of the conclusions in part two of the Bach report that we should look more closely at,’ he admitted.
In response to questioning from Lord Colin Low, the chair of the Low Commission, on the impact of the rise in court and tribunal fees, Sir Oliver said that ‘we do have a system where we can charge beyond the cost recovery’ and reiterated that there was a case for having reasonable charges for accessing the justice system.
‘We spent £1.8bn on running the courts and we recover £700m in charges. You’ve got to think, is that the right amount? Some may say no. We’re trying to be responsive but as someone who has spent a lot of time doing cases on legal aid, I do have to accept that I am working within something of a straitjacket because of the finances of the nation.’
Last year the MoJ rowed back on plans to increase fees for immigration and asylum tribunals by 500 per cent. Sir Oliver said an MoJ review of employment fees, which rocketed over the last parliament, would be due ‘very shortly’.
In a lengthy session, the justice minister also took aim at the Law Society, which said cuts had created legal aid deserts which risked increasing homelessness. Chancery Lane has called on the government to take urgent action after it found that one-third of legal aid areas have either one or no solicitors specialising in housing law and offering advice through legal aid.
‘I don’t agree with the Law Society about the housing crisis,’ said Sir Oliver. ‘It’s a very important issue. There are 134 areas of legal aid in the country and in 35 of them there is one provider and the Law Society is saying there should be two. That would undermine the current providers because they’ve taken the costs of setting up a housing team and they all do a fantastic job. I worry about sustainability.’
Sir Oliver’s disclosure of the MoJ’s timetable for LASPO’s review will be welcomed, but many will wonder why it has been so long in coming. Has pressure from sector stakeholders proved too much to ignore, or is the ministry simply sticking to its schedule? What is certain, however, is that lawyers are ready and willing to help the MoJ carry out its LASPO review. Their input, if heeded, will be vital to ensuring access to justice for all.
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal