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Legal aid needs urgent reform to secure fairness of the justice system: Commons Justice Committee

Legal aid is in urgent need of reform to protect the fairness of the justice and to ensure that the most vulnerable can have access to justice, a report by the House of Commons Justice Committee has found.

The report warns that a rigid system of fixed fees and low pay is leaving firms specialising in legal aid struggling. The sustainability of legal aid providers is critical to ensure that those eligible for legal aid are able to be supported through what, it finds, can be a complex and daunting system.

The Committee calls for the civil legal aid system to be overhauled. The Committee argues that early legal advice can help to make the courts operate more effectively. The legal aid system needs to be simplified to make it easier for those who are eligible to access the services they require. Providers of civil legal aid are also facing sustainability issues, resulting in 'legal aid deserts' in certain areas, where people cannot access the specialist advice in for certain issues such as housing, immigration and community care. The Committee recommends that the Government takes a more flexible approach to legal aid funding, so that the providers can be given the support to help the most vulnerable.

The Committee finds that the current legal aid means test may also be creating a barrier to justice for some of the most vulnerable in society and impacting the fairness of the justice system. The Government should consider changing the eligibility thresholds and regularly increase them in line with inflation.

With regard to family issues, the Committee welcomes the introduction of the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme. It says that it is a positive step which recognises that more needs to be done to help separating parents. The Committee believes that if early legal advice was available alongside mediation, it would result in an increase in the numbers using mediation successfully.

The Committee suggests that the civil legal aid system needs an updated version of the Green Form scheme, which was introduced in 1973, that would allow individuals to understand their rights and be directed to the services that are most appropriate for their situation. One suggestion the Committee received is that the Government could develop and pilot an ambitious and economically viable early advice scheme, that enables individuals to access timely legal and expert advice. Rather than being constrained by issues of scope, such a scheme should be strategically targeted at those who would most benefit from early advice.

The weight of evidence, according to the Committee, suggests that inaction on the rising number of litigants in person is not an option. Many of the policy responses to the issue involve increasing the resources of the courts or other agencies involved in the system. With the impact of the pandemic likely to lead to greater number of litigants in person in the family courts and in tribunals, the Committee urges the Government to consider providing more accessible and effective forms of support.

The Committee encourages the Government to consider increasing the scale of projects and grants to support litigants in person. It recognises that the Government is making progress in improving legal support and information for litigants in person, but cautions the Government that such measures should not be seen as an alternative to tailored legal advice. The Committee is aware that in areas such as benefits, non-legally qualified specialist advisors can provide appropriate assistance However, as long as the justice system is characterised by complex legal frameworks and an adversarial justice system, the availability of individualised legal advice and support will remain necessary.

For the report, click here. For the report's conclusions and recommendations, click here. For a summary, click here.