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LASPO has harmed access to justice: Justice Committee

Reforms have failed to achieve MoJ’s objectives

The House of Commons Justice Select Committee considers that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has harmed access to justice for some litigants and has not achieved the other three of the Ministry of Justice's four stated objectives for the reforms.

The Committee has published its report reviewing the impact of LASPO.

Committee Chair, Sir Alan Beith, said:

"The urgency of the financial situation in which this country found itself in 2010 meant that the MoJ was faced with difficult decisions: making £2 billion of savings from a budget of £9.8 billion was clearly a very challenging target and it was successfully achieved.

"But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.

"Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research, a better evidence base to work from, and better public information about the reforms. It is vitally important that the MoJ work to remedy this from now on, so that a review of the policy can be undertaken."

The report states that LASPO was introduced as part of the Government's programme of spending cuts to achieve significant savings to the legal aid budget. The Ministry's four objectives for the reforms were to:

The Committee's conclusion was that, while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms.

Since the reforms came into effect there has been an underspend in the civil legal aid budget because the Ministry has not ensured that many people who are eligible for legal aid are able to access it. A lack of public information about the extent and availability of legal aid post-reforms, including about the Civil Legal Advice telephone gateway for debt advice, contributed to this and it is recommended that the Ministry take prompt steps to redress this.

Parliament intended the exceptional cases funding scheme to act as a safety net, protecting access to justice for the most vulnerable. The Committee is very concerned that it has not achieved that aim. It heard of a number of cases where, to our surprise, exceptional case funding was not granted. The Ministry was too slow to respond to the lower than expected number of such grants; the Committee now expects it to react rapidly to ensure that the system fulfils the purpose Parliament intended for it.

Private family law was removed from the scope of legal aid, but those who can provide evidence of domestic violence are still eligible. The Committee welcomes the Ministry's efforts to ensure that victims of domestic violence are provided with the necessary evidence by healthcare professionals and its assurance that the types of evidence required are under continual review. However there is concern that a large proportion of victims of domestic violence do not have any of the types of evidence required. The Committee is also troubled by the potentially detrimental effects of the strict requirement that the evidence be from no more than 24 months prior to the date of application, which it considers should be a matter of discretion for the Legal Aid Agency in appropriate cases.

Evidence was received on the effects of the reforms on the legal aid market and providers of publicly-funded legal services. Reforms have led to the cutting and significant downsizing of departments and centres dealing with such work, leading to concerns about the sustainability of legal aid practice in future. The National Audit Office's findings indicate that there may already be 'advice deserts', geographical areas where these services are not available, and think that work to assess and rectify this must be carried out immediately.

The Committee found that the courts are having to expend more resources to assist litigants in person and require more funding to cope, alongside increased direct assistance by the Ministry for litigants in person.

The Committee also found that the sharp reduction in mediation was because the Ministry did not appreciate what makes people seek mediation, with the end of compulsory mediation assessment, the removal of solicitors from the process, and the lack of clear advice from the Ministry all contributing. Unlike in other areas, however, the Ministry did act swiftly to remedy the problems.

The Ministry's significant savings are potentially undermined, the Committee found, by its inability to show that it has achieved value for money for the taxpayer. The Ministry's efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive. There have therefore been a number of knock-on costs, with costs potentially merely being shifted from the legal aid budget to other public services, such as the courts or local authorities. This is another aspect of the reforms about which there is insufficient information; the Ministry must assess and quantify these knock-on costs if it is to be able to demonstrate it has met its objective of better value for the taxpayer.

Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, responded to the report:

"Victims of domestic violence cannot get the help or protection that they need. It is difficult, almost impossible for many people in crisis to obtain legal advice because of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles."

David Emmerson, chair of Resolution's legal aid committee, said:

"Many people who have suffered domestic abuse find it very difficult to gather together the evidence required by the Legal Aid Agency to get the support they need.

"We've even heard of people being subjected to the horrendous experience of facing the courts without legal support, only to be cross-examined directly by their abuser. Surely the government did not intend this situation, which amounts to a perpetuation of abuse, as a consequence of the legal aid cuts."

Professor Carolyn Hamilton, Director of Research and International Programmes at Coram Children's Legal Service, said:

"Since drastic cuts to legal aid in April 2013, we have seen children unable to enforce the rights and protections that the law provides to them. Without legal support, they and their families simply cannot navigate the complex legal processes they face, which have life-changing consequences.

"We are calling on the Government to listen to the Justice Select Committee, and all the other organisations which have expressed their concerns and look again at the provision of legal services for children. We cannot leave children to navigate a complex legal system all on their own. It also needs to be recognised that legal charities and law firms need to be paid for the work they do for children if they are to survive: the exceptional funding scheme must be reformed and the most urgent cases should be brought back into the scope of legal aid, including separated children's immigration cases.

"The Government must also conclusively abandon its unlawful plan to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid."

The report is here.