The fight for Legal Aid continues
It's been five years since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act came into force and drastically reduced the scope and availability of legal aid funding. We are following the post-implementation review process and feeding back to the Network to enable the views of organisations working directly with litigants in person to be shared.
In March the Ministry of Justice announced they were undertaking a post-implementation review to conduct an evidence based assessment of the impact of LASPO and test the success of the reform against their objectives.
There is a general acceptance that the cuts have over delivered cost savings; LASPO was intended to reduce the legal aid budget by £450 million in today’s terms. But in the event, it went further than that and in 2017, spending was £950 million less than in 2010.
The family courts have been some of the most affected, with more than a third of cases involving litigants unrepresented on both sides. One senior judge spoke of the ‘shaming’ impact of legal aid cuts as he explained how he sometimes had to help litigants in person by cross-examining witnesses on their behalf.
The Litigant in Person Support Strategy itself has reported massive shifts in user numbers. Since LASPO, the PSU has gone from helping LiPs on 13,000 occasions a year to 45,000 a year in 2015/16. In the same year RCJ Advice saw an increase in LiPs given legal advice from 3,016 in 2014/15 to 5,587 in 2015/16. For the period March 2014 to April 2015, LawWorks clinics responded to 43,000 enquiries (a 55% increase), with over 28,000 receiving legal advice. The Bar Pro Bono Unit has seen a 30% year on year increase in applications since 2012.
In early June Conservative MP Alex Chalk, member of the House of Commons justice select committee, wrote an article in support of continuing the fight for legal aid stating “it is vital that legal redress is available to all – regardless of income or background.”
Chalk backs two “proportionate, cost effective, measures that would improve access to justice”; legal aid for early legal advice (recognising the impact advice at this stage could have, particularly on cluster problems) and updated financial eligibility requirements for legal aid (recognising that as few as 20% of the country are eligible for legal aid).
These proposals were also put forward in the Bach Commission, but as preliminary “quick fix” recommendations.
These sentiments were certainly echoed at the recent LASPO Review conference convened by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. The conference was attended by a wide range of organisations from legal aid practitioners to public legal education charities and included members of the MoJ team.
Early advice was a major focus, with triage of clients being identified as an issue which comes up time and again; there’s no doubt that early advice is beneficial but who should give it, and how do people access it?
Client triage is notoriously difficult to deliver without at least an understanding of legal process and wider expertise in various areas of law. It is particularly vital for vulnerable clients who are experiencing “cluster problems” i.e. presenting with one issue (which they may or may not understand to be legal) which is actually connected to multiple different legal, social and economic issues.
The discussion also highlighted the importance of considering the client’s journey, especially when considering how we can best provide a holistic service to clients who may not even realise they have a legal problem. These clients may not seek to access advice services directly but instead seek advice from trusted intermediaries, or head to their local library, local authority or even GP surgery. How do we provide a complete end-to-end service for litigants in person through a network of very different organisations and how do we support those organisations, some of whom will not have the knowledge or expertise to fully advise people in need of help?
This issue is particularly prevalent in mental health cases which remain in scope for legal aid but where a third of clients who are referred to a lawyer will not take their case forward because they need someone to help guide and support them through the process.
But therein lies another problem; supporting clients through the referral process is one thing, but there are now so few legal aid providers that referrers struggle to find lawyers to take cases despite them being meritorious and in scope.
There’s a limited amount the free advice sector can deliver by itself without additional resources; a high level of legal experience and knowledge is needed for client triage, other organisations play a role in guiding litigants in person through the process at various points and there is no replacement for the knowledge that has been lost by a lack of provision in some areas of law and geographically.
There is a real need to invest in understanding and providing for the fragmented journey litigants in person now experience, especially when the emphasis on technological solutions can exclude so many deprived and vulnerable users.
What we can do is start to try to re-establish and broaden the networks that fell dormant post-LASPO, we hope to be able to support organisations to make links, not only with legal service providers but with other public service providers who may encounter litigants in person, to facilitate a more connected and supported journey for those facing legal issues alone.
As part of the review the MoJ are encouraging additional submissions of evidence of all types; from qualitative research reports to statistical data. The deadline for submissions of evidence is the end of September.
If you wish to engage with MoJ or to make a submission of evidence for the consideration of the review team, please email email@example.com.