This morning the Ministry of Justice published its quarterly legal aid statistics. Today’s release is particularly important: it is a picture of the first full three years after the civil legal aid cuts of 2013. What do they tell us about the state of access to justice in England and Wales?
The cuts were drastic. In the year before the LASPO cuts, 82,542 people were helped to get their rightful benefits entitlements. Last year, only 258 people were helped. Even areas of law that are largely still in scope have suffered: last year saw less than two thirds (65%) of community care cases and half(!) of the housing cases than in the year before the cuts.
But they didn’t end there. The cuts of April 2013 were a one-off event, but since then fewer and fewer people are getting help. Last year (2015-16) saw civil non-family work drop by 13% from the previous year. In the same period, spending on these areas of law nearly halved (-48%). Ministers keep saying, “We have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world.” This might be in monetary terms, but last year it helped with 21,000 fewer cases – and that’s with no additional cuts.
People are still not getting through. In three areas of law – debt, discrimination and education – civil legal aid is delivered over the telephone by default. All have seen fewer and fewer new cases. Discrimination advice last quarter (January-March) was down 18% year on year, and annually down 12% on the previous year. Last year saw half as many (-49%) debt cases as the year before and less than 1%(!) of the number of cases helped before the cuts.
Geographical access to justice matters. By and large, civil legal aid is delivered locally, face-to-face. Last year, it was provided out of 509 fewer offices than in the year before, a 13.5% drop. This was also 902 fewer offices than before the legal aid cuts. The reduction in local access points was more marked among not-for-profits (like Law Centres) than among private firms. Fewer outlets matter: the further that people in poverty need to travel to get advice, the less likely they are to access it.
Silver lining? Well… Civil legal aid’s ‘safety net’ scheme, Exceptional Case Funding (ECF), is performing better, getting more applications and approving more of them. However, last year’s total of 641 cases helped are still a fraction of the 5,000-7,000 cases that government had forecast when the cuts were made.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, commented:
In December 2014, the then-Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice admitted that “if you get reform wrong, you can certainly damage the system.” After three years under the LASPO regime, there is no doubt of the damage and its knock-on effects on other parts of the justice system, like the courts.
The economic impact of the prospect of Brexit is already becoming apparent, and the most disadvantaged will be hardest hit. The turbulent period ahead makes a review and repair of civil legal aid all the more urgent. Government ignores another broken support system at its peril.
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