Ministry of Justice spending accounts for just 1% of total Government spending, yet the Department has received some of the most vicious cuts over the last nine years, with overall budget cuts of 40% by 2020. That dramatic decrease in funding has been felt across the justice system, and has had an impact on victims, families, local communities and vulnerable individuals, and their ability to gain access to justice. The modest increase in funding for the Ministry in the September spending review provides a 4.9% budget increase in real terms, but it is nowhere near enough to deal with the pressure that is being felt throughout the justice sector.
Owing to time constraints, I shall limit my comments to cuts in civil legal aid. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—LASPO—reduced civil legal aid expenditure from £1.02 billion in 2012 to £678 million in 2018. The cost of that has been significantly reduced access to justice, areas of the justice system being overwhelmed by litigants in person, and the sustainability of the publicly funded legal profession being deeply threatened. All that means that the Ministry’s demands on the Treasury are likely to increase over the long term, countering the savings made by the LASPO reforms.
LASPO removed from the scope of legal aid vast areas of law, including most private family law, and law relating to employment, welfare benefits, housing, debt, clinical negligence and non-asylum immigration. It also instigated tighter financial eligibility criteria for civil legal aid by changing the financial means test for areas of law that remained in the scope of legal aid. That included the ending of automatic eligibility for those in receipt of means-tested benefits, and reducing the limit on the maximum income and capital that an individual can have to qualify for legal aid. As a result of these reforms, many people who have previously been eligible for legal aid have been unable to gain legal assistance to pursue their cases. Instead, they must now pay for legal advice or representation themselves—often an impossible task—try to find free support or navigate the problem on their own. This greatly reduces the likelihood of an individual case receiving justice. The Amnesty International 2016 report states that the LASPO reforms have resulted in a two-tier legal system, open to those who can afford it but closed to those who cannot.
The reforms have impacted on access to justice in wide-reaching ways. For example, early legal advice is no longer in scope for legal aid, so cases that could otherwise be resolved early are now escalating into more complex cases, pushing further costs on to local and national Government. For example, Shelter has documented how this approach to housing advice has led to increased costs of temporary accommodation being borne by local authorities. LASPO has also led to the emergence of advice deserts in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas. Many solicitors have given up legal aid work because there is no longer funding for it, and this has particularly impacted on immigration and housing law.
The human cost of all this is often all too real for my constituents. For example, one constituent who was the victim of female genital mutilation, who had hepatitis B and who had fled a forced marriage needed urgent help to make a Home Office application or otherwise face removal. She was not entitled to legal aid and had nowhere to turn other than to a charity rather than getting proper legal advice and assistance. Another case I dealt with involved a 63-year-old women with breast cancer who had her benefits stopped and was told by the jobcentre to look for work. Her benefits issue was out of scope for legal aid so, while also battling cancer, she had to try to find free legal representation from overstretched charities to challenge her benefits refusal at tribunal. It is likely that she will end up having to represent herself.
The crux of this is that a lot of vulnerable people in desperate situations are being refused legal aid. Often the issue is not in scope, and when it is, the means test makes legal aid really difficult to access. The Government say that they are saving money, but in reality this is costing a great deal, both to society and to the Treasury. The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report on the impact of LASPO found that unresolved welfare benefits issues were resulting in financial deprivation, including the risk of homelessness and an inability to pay for necessities such as food, heating and electricity, and that the difficulty of resolving legal issues in general was causing physical, emotional and mental health problems. Ultimately, the cost of this is likely to be far greater than providing legal aid in the first place.
The Government have a duty to provide a justice system that ensures that members of the public are able to obtain the advice and representation that they reasonably need, but the system that we now have under LASPO is clearly failing in terms of its ability to give people access to justice. Not only does it undermine the rule of law but it has serious consequences for the lives of many. If we are to avoid long-term and potentially irreversible damage to our justice system, the Government must properly fund legal aid to ensure that members of the public are able to secure appropriate advice and representation. This would require the reintroduction of legal aid for the areas of law removed from scope, and the introduction of more generous financial eligibility criteria. These reforms are necessary if we are to have any confidence in the justness of our legal system, and if we are to see the reversal of the development of a grossly unfair two-tier justice system.