Today the Ministry of Justice released the quarterly legal aid statistics for January-March 2015. This quarter concludes the second year after the drastic cuts to civil legal aid under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
The official statistics reflect a continuing slump in the uptake of civil legal aid in social welfare law. They show, among others, that
- Workload declined year on year across most areas of civil legal aid: housing -12%; debt -44%; discrimination -9%; welfare benefits (Upper Tribunal) -38%; public law -15% [p.31]
- Applications for civil legal aid in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse were up, but proportion of cases actually granted legal aid was down year on year from 68% to 63% [pp.34-35]
- Grants of civil legal aid for Judicial Review were down 34% year on year, owing in part to the impact of more restrictive new regulations [pp.33-34]
- Exceptional Case Funding, the legal aid 'safety net' scheme, saw 23% fewer applications year on year, and only 40 non-inquest cases granted ECF between January and March [p.40]
- The number of local offices offering civil legal aid has fallen: in 2014-15 there were 36% fewer not-for-profit locales and 8% fewer private firm locales than the previous year [table 9.2].
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, said:
The Justice Secretary has said on Monday that "legal aid is a vital element in any fair justice system". Today's figures show that our access to justice vital statistics are failing.
We welcome Mr Gove's announcement that there are no further cuts planned for legal aid. The statistics, however, demonstrate that the current provision is itself in dire need of improvement. It makes no sense that at a time of increasing evictions uptake of legal aid in housing law should decline, or that when UK household debt is soaring legal aid for resolving it is flagging.
A review of the LASPO civil legal aid regime cannot come too soon. The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee urge this. The Justice Committee urges this. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group, of which LCN is a member, has made some sensible and detailed proposals for reform.
It is government's responsibility, as Mr Gove acknowledges, "to make sure that those in the greatest hardship [...] are provided with the resources to secure access to justice." We call on the Ministry of Justice to make sure that the resources it provides are also accessible and effective.