TUC: Legal aid reforms cutting people out of justice system
Damning report reiterates damaging impact of cuts as support grows for LASPO review
Legal aid reforms are pricing people out of court and should be put on hold immediately to prevent further detrimental impact on the justice system, a report by the Trades Union Congress has said.
The TUC has called on the MoJ to carry out immediate and in-depth assessments of the impact of budget cuts, courts reforms, and of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
It also wants a ‘moratorium on further budget and staffing cuts in the justice sector until the above assessments have been carried out’.
TUC head of public services, Kevin Rowan, said the report ‘should be a wake up-call to ministers’. ‘Government cuts to legal aid are pricing people out of justice, with women worse affected. The message from the front-line is clear. Services are being stretched and those most in need are being let down.’
Researchers interviewed 141 justice sector employees working in organisations including: the Howard League for Penal Reform, Islington Law Centre, the Justice Alliance, the Law Society, Rights of Women, Simpson Millar LLP Solicitors, and Women’s Aid.
The findings follow last week’s criticism of the government by Amnesty International over cuts to legal aid, which have helped the MoJ reduce its budget from £2.4bn to £1.6bn.
Four in five respondents said that the government’s reforms to legal aid have had a detrimental impact on access to justice while a staggering 87 per cent said the increase in litigants in person had damaged the ability of family and civil courts to deliver justice fairly, effectively, and efficiently.
Further, some 90 per cent viewed budget cuts to court services and the Crown Prosecution Service as being detrimental to the effective delivery of justice.
Over two-thirds (67 per cent) said that overall cases were taking longer since LASPO came into effect and more than half (56 per cent) believed that cases were taking longer to be listed and concluded.
Law Society’s chief executive, Catherine Dixon, said the statistics demonstrated how the increase in litigants in person post-LASPO was having a negative effect on the ability of the family and civil courts to deliver justice.
‘It supports anecdotal evidence that the increase in LiPs is causing cases to take longer – which costs time and money. We support the TUC’s calls for an in-depth assessment into the effects of the budget cuts and for the government to take a look at justice holistically.’
Last month justice secretary, Liz Truss, and three senior judges jointly published a ‘vision paper’, ‘Transforming Our Justice System’, which set out plans to digitise courts and tribunals as part of its proposed £1bn court reforms.
To help fund the £700m modernisation of the courts and tribunal system the MoJ will rely on the capital raised from the closure of 86 courts in England and Wales. So far the outlook is bleak as 71 per cent of respondents told the TUC that the latest round of court closures had had a negative impact on access to justice, the effective delivery of justice, and on court users.
Former Legal Action Group director, Roger Smith, said the paper was ‘flawed’ and criticised the government for having ‘no plan’ after the court closures.
Smith added that the proposals failed to take into account ‘best practice for digital projects’ going forward. This was compounded by the TUC’s findings which revealed the difficulties of using IT in the courts.
Some 54 per cent agreed that ‘IT sometimes works, but systems need improvement’ and a further 34 per cent agreed that ‘IT systems are unreliable which causes problems when cases are being heard’. Language used to describe IT systems included ‘ancient’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘incompatible’.
The TUC recommended that technology should be developed in collaboration with staff and fully tested before being rolled out across court services.
Legal Action Group welcomed the report. ‘The TUC is another important voice calling for the government to review the LASPO Act due to its disastrous impact on access to justice for many of the most poor and vulnerable.’
Gimhani Eriyagolla, solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and Young Legal Aid Lawyers committee member, added: ‘YLAL agrees with the recommendations in the report, in particular the call for an immediate and in-depth assessment of the impact of legal aid cuts. We hope that Liz Truss, as the new secretary of state for justice, will consider these recommendations seriously.’
In response the MoJ said: 'We have a generous legal aid system – last year spending more than £1.5bn on legal aid.
'We must ensure legal aid is sustainable and fair – both for those who need it and the taxpayer who pays for it. That is why we have made sure support remains available to the most vulnerable and in the most serious cases, and are taking action to ensure people can access the help they need.'