'Access Denied': Law Society's 25-point plan to salvage civil justice following government cuts

in Media
Law Society Gazette:

The Law Society is calling for a root-and-branch overhaul of civil legal aid provision to help repair the damage inflicted by deep cuts four years ago.

In a report* published today, Chancery Lane says spending and eligibility curbs implemented through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have denied justice to the vulnerable, created chaos in the courts and shifted costs to other state agencies - including the NHS.

The Society also urges the new government to get on with the post-implementation review of LASPO set in train earlier this year by now departed justice minister Sir Oliver Heald. The review was aborted by the general election.

LASPO removed lawyers from the justice process to save £450m a year. But this has proved a ‘false economy’ by deterring people from seeking early advice and shunting problems elsewhere, the Society alleges. 

President Robert Bourns said: ‘The demographics of legal aid recipients before 2012 clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society. 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.’

He added: ’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.’

The Society’s report partly echoes widespread criticism of the reforms from other influential quarters, including the Commons justice committee of MPs. In 2015 the committee reported that the changes had led to a ‘substantial’ increase in litigants in person, growing pressure on the courts, a fall in mediation and reports of ‘advice deserts’.

The timing of Chancery Lane’s own review is opportune, with media commentators questioning whether the restriction of legal aid in housing may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The report points out that some housing cases are no longer eligible for legal aid, adding that ‘people now have a stark choice: to pay for their own legal advice, represent themselves, or be excluded from the justice system altogether’. Bourns added: ’There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.’

The report contains 25 recommendations for reform and restitution of civil legal aid provision (below). These include: reviewing and uprating the means test; commissioning an independent review of the system’s sustainability; and reinstating legal aid for early advice in family cases.