Fix legal aid now, Law Centres call on government

Thursday, June 29th 2017

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Law Centres call for an urgent review of legal aid policy in light of yet more concerning figures in today’s legal aid statistical release.

The latest release (for January-March 2017) concludes the fourth year of the civil legal aid regime framed by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). It demonstrates how restrictive it has become and how poorly it serves the public’s legal needs.

The ebbing away continues: In 2016-17, there were 2,000 fewer new non-family civil legal aid cases compared with the previous year. About half of that drop was down to fewer new housing cases, of which there were 3% fewer compared with the same quarter last year. A similar shrinkage was seen in quarterly new immigration (-6%) and mental health cases.

Telephone gateway woes: For three areas of law – debt, discrimination and education – a telephone ‘gateway’ is the mandatory initial point of legal aid service. All three have seen a poorer quarter than the same time the previous year: fewer new debt and education cases and significantly fewer (-25%) new discrimination cases. In all of last year, only 1,414 new discrimination cases were helped by legal aid, out of a population of 65m people.

Held to account? Last quarter, legal aid was granted to 22.5% fewer cases involving judicial review, which is a primary way of challenging decisions of public bodies. This chimes with a similar annual drop (-22%), meaning that only 3,010 cases last year were legally aided for judicial review.

A tear in the safety net: 35% more applications were made last quarter for Exceptional Case Funding, legal aid’s ‘safety net’ scheme. However, approvals of ECF dropped by 2% year on year. Overall, only 954 people benefited from this so-called ‘safety net’ last year.

Accessibility of justice? The ranks of firms and charities that provide civil legal aid in practice have dwindled since the LASPO cuts, driven in particular by a drop in not-for-profit providers. Right now there are 32% fewer offices across England and Wales through which people can get legal aid, compared with the year before the cuts.

Resisting evictions - so far: Last quarter alone, legal aid helped 10,086 new housing cases through duty desks in court, a scheme targeted at preventing evictions and possible homelessness. How well would the service work with only 31% of the current duty desk schemes, as government proposes?

Cuts that would not stop: When LASPO was first tabled, the government predicted that it would lead to 605,000 fewer cases than its latest figures at the time (2009/10). In fact, last year saw 848,643 fewer cases than that benchmark – way fewer than anticipated. The government also expected LASPO to achieve a £350m cut to legal aid spending, which was then £2.2bn. That mark was crossed in LASPO’s second year (2014-15) and the total legal aid spend now is £1.6bn.

Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, said:

“Legal aid cuts have gone further than the government had expected. In fact, legal aid has not reached a steady state since LASPO, and continues to shrink through additional cuts, fee rises and rule changes. This is simply not sustainable.

“It is not sustainable to providers who struggle with paltry fees and clunky legal aid administration. More importantly, it is not sustainable for disadvantaged people, for whom legal aid exists. They may have rights, but without legal assistance to get remedies these rights do not count for much.

“A case in point is that of Grenfell Tower survivors, whom our North Kensington Law Centre helps mostly thanks to public donations, charitable grants and pro bono volunteering to augment its staff, as legal aid covers so little of their legal needs.

“The current system of legal aid is pulling us further and further away from the Prime Minister’s vision of 'a country that works for everyone'. We look forward to the imminent review of LASPO and expect the government to make urgent changes, so that more people in need can access vital legal assistance.”

For enquiries about this statement please contact the Law Centres Network on 020 3637 1330 or email nimrod@lawcentres.org.uk