This morning saw the release of the quarterly legal aid statistics for October-December 2015. The picture they present is a worrying one to Law Centres, and some issues stand out.
Just as evictions and homelessness across England keep rising, there were 11% fewer new housing cases on legal aid compared to the same quarter the previous year. Annually, housing cases have gone from 56,600 in 2014 down to 47,000 in 2015, a 17% drop. Legal aid also operates a duty solicitor scheme in county courts, helping people avoid imminent evictions. New cases in this scheme were down 21% year on year.
Civil Legal Advice, the telephone gateway for accessing legal aid, was introduced in the spring of 2013. Last year, only 1 in 9 callers (11.4%) ended up getting legal help through a telephone-based lawyer. The gateway is the first point of contact for people needing help with three areas of law, all of which have seen drops in new cases last quarter, some of them dramatic. Education law help was down 6% year on year, discrimination was down 44% and debt down 61% - a cause for concern given the scale of UK household debt.
Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) is meant to be the ‘safety net’ scheme to ensure that people get legal help in particularly important matters engaging human rights that may not otherwise get helped. On the face of it, ECF is improving year on year, with a 10% rise in applications for it and a 31% rise in approvals. However, when compared with the Ministry of Justice’s own projections, ECF is still under-performing. Instead of some 3,000-5,000 cases per year forecast to get funded by ECF, in 2015, only 495 cases did.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, said:
By its own admission, the Ministry of Justice had made the 2013 cuts to civil legal aid based on insufficient evidence. This has resulted in cuts that keep on cutting: an initial drop in volume when the cuts came into force and continued shrinking since. Last quarter, 10% fewer people have accessed legal help than during the same period in the previous year.
This is of great concern to us. Today's figures suggest that many still find it difficult to access civil legal aid, despite known need. A great deal of repair work is needed when government comes to review the LASPO Act, which had brought in the cuts, sometime in the next two years. We strongly urge the Ministry of Justice to work with practitioners on making civil legal aid more effective.
For further comment please contact the Law Centres Network on 020 3637 1330 or email us.