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Legal aid barriers deny most vulnerable their fundamental rights, concludes the Law Society

New report considers effect of LASPO

Cuts to legal aid spending over the past four years have denied justice to the most vulnerable in society, hit the public purse and damaged the foundation of our justice system, the Law Society of England and Wales said as it published its reckoning of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO): Access denied? LASPO four years on.

Law Society president Robert Bourns today said:

"Four years ago, LASPO was implemented and hundreds of thousands of people who were eligible for legal aid on one day (31 March 2013) became ineligible the very next."

LASPO introduced changes to the scope, eligibility and the rates paid for work, and resulted in significant cuts to legal aid spending. Four years on, the Law Society has conducted a review of the legal aid changes in LASPO. The report focuses on the impact of the civil legal aid cuts on the ability of citizens to defend and enforce their legal rights.

The report also suggests that legal aid cuts have actually increased pressure on wider public services, due to growing numbers of people representing themselves in court, and escalating legal problems due to the removal of legal aid for early advice.

Robert Bourns explained:

"While successive governments have repeatedly cut back the legal aid budget, the reforms set out in LASPO 2012 made the most significant changes to legal aid since its introduction, denying legal aid to very many who need it."

LASPO Part 1 implemented significant cuts to the scope of civil legal aid, with the aim of cutting legal aid expenditure by £450 million. The demographics of legal aid recipients prior to 2012 clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society. 

"Access to justice should be treated as an essential public service – equal to healthcare or education. Legal aid is a lifeline for the vulnerable. Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers money.

"Failure to get early expert legal advice can result in problems escalating dramatically, when they could have been nipped in the bud. The cuts have led to many people facing court unrepresented, in cases where lawyers would have resolved the issues without involving the court, via mediation or negotiation."

Robert Bourns added:

"Removing lawyers from the process is a false economy. The cuts in legal aid for family law have put people off seeking advice and support from solicitors who can explain where they stand and what their rights are."

"Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties. A properly funded legal aid system is an essential public service that ensures equal access to justice for all.

"The previous government was about to commence a comprehensive post-implementation review of both parts 1 and 2 of LASPO before the election was called. We hope that the new government will be able to commit to continue with this.

"Our own review is intended as a contribution to the debate on access to justice and how it can be preserved. It highlights the fundamental question of how to restore and protect access to justice for everyone in the 21st century regardless of their economic circumstances."

Legal aid statistics, released today by the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency, show that total legal aid expenditure for family law during April 2016 to March 2017 was £524 million of which £412 million related to public law cases, £112 million to private law cases and £6 million to mediation and MIAMs.

For the Law Society report, click here.

29/6/17