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MoJ announces new legal aid strategy

SGO proceedings to qualify for legal aid

The Ministry of Justice has published a Legal Support Action Plan which, it says, will deliver quicker and easier access to legal support services.

In the field of children and family law, the government has committed to bringing forward proposals by Autumn 2019 to expand the scope of legal aid to cover special guardianship orders in private family law and by Spring 2019 to include separated migrant children in immigration cases.

Whilst welcoming some of the government's proposals, lawyers groups said that much more needs to be done to reverse the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

The measures announced in the Legal Support Action Plan are in response to evidence heard during the year-long review of the changes to legal aid made in 2013 under LASPO.

The new strategy, according to the MoJ, "focuses on the individual and prioritises early intervention – giving people the breadth of support they need to solve problems quickly and easily, in many cases before they become entangled in the legal system or need legal representation".

Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said:

"Legal aid will continue to play an important role and we are committed to ensuring people can access the help they need into the future.

"However, in seeking to bolster legal aid as a key part of helping people with a diverse range of problems, we are clear that there is much to do aside from legal aid, so we are emphasising the need for new technologies and new ideas to catch people early, before their problems escalate to the courtroom.

"We have carefully considered the responses in this review and will expand the scope of legal aid to cover new areas of family law, launch a review of legal aid eligibility thresholds, invest up to £5 million in delivering innovative services and test new methods of support to help people resolve their problems quickly and easily, in the way that best works for them."

More than a hundred groups and individuals from across the justice system were engaged during the Post Implementation Review (PIR) of the legal aid reforms. A key point of concern raised during this process was the ability of individuals to access legal aid for civil and family matters.

The Action Plan responds to the evidence heard by:

The Action Plan is the first step towards overhauling the legal support system; promoting early intervention to resolve problems before they escalate, drawing together the full and diverse range of legal support already being delivered and developing innovative services to help people access justice at the right time and in the right way for them.

This includes:

Responses to the government's strategy
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group welcomed the call for the restoration of early legal advice and commitment to review the legal aid means test, but also said:

"[W]e strongly disagree with the review is with the conclusion that the network of advice providers, whether law firms or advice agencies, is sustainable. That is contrary to all the evidence we provided, which shows providers are struggling to keep afloat, following years of static or reduced fees, and increased bureaucracy. Law Centres and advice centres have closed down and high street legal aid practitioners have pulled out of legal aid. Much more needs to be done now to make sure that we have a justice system for the future."

Resolution said that the legal aid review was a welcome first step, but more must be done to reverse damage of cuts.

The Law Society said that "a move to ease some of the hurdles restricting access to justice for hundreds of thousands of people is a shift in the right direction".

Jane Robey, CEO of National Family Mediation, said

"This is a ... very disappointing outcome to a process into which many professional organisations and individuals invested considerable time and ideas. 

"We note there is a promise of more money for litigants in person. We sincerely hope this translates into considerably more resources for those organisations such as ourselves which are working with these people ,and providing accurate and bespoke information and guidance free of charge."

For the MoJ announcement, click here. For the Legal Support Action Plan itself, click here. For the Post-Implementation Review of Part 1 of LASPO, click here. For the response of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, click here. For that of Resolution, click here and for that of The Law Society, click here.