Today the House of Commons Justice Committee has published its report on the impact of reforms to civil legal aid on access to justice.
The report condemns the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) handling of changes under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), concluding that MoJ “has failed in three of its four objectives for LASPO.” Going even further than recent criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, the only objective that the Justice Committee considers has been met is cutting legal aid spending.
The Justice Committee repeatedly expresses its concern about the way the cuts were implemented. The large underspend on the legal aid budget “should have rung alarm bells” at MoJ and prompted a rapid response. It was also concerned that the Legal Aid Agency was “failing to give sufficient weight to its vital role in ensuring access to justice.”
The impact on access to justice was dramatic. The Committee finds that “faulty implementation” of the LASPO cuts “has harmed access to justice.” More worryingly, there are “considerable weaknesses” in measures “to ensure access to justice for vulnerable people,” and “ample evidence” that legal aid is not reaching people in greatest need.
The report calls for urgent reviews of key areas of legal aid, including Exceptional Case Funding (the ‘safety net’ provision); the access of children to legal aid; and gateway eligibility for legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
The report also urges a cost-benefit analysis of LASPO reforms – which MoJ has so far refused, claiming it was impossible – as well as a review of the sustainability of the legal aid market across the country, although “in some areas it may already be too late.”
Nimrod Ben Cnaan, head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, has said:
“Law Centres welcome today’s report, which leaves no doubt about the damage wreaked by government cuts. Disadvantaged and vulnerable people who should be able to get legal aid are unable to do so, even when it is available. The cuts have also rocked local support agencies, leading ten Law Centres to close and restricting the services of remaining ones.
“Legal aid exists to help disadvantaged people assert their rights in the face of richer and more powerful people and bodies. Without this vital check they suffer unfairness and ultimately injustice; these blight their lives, deepen inequality and undermine the rule of law.
“Civil legal aid is not being delivered as Parliament had intended. Therefore, we strongly support the report’s call for urgent reviews of legal aid. We must ensure that this vital support is effectively available to those who need it most.”