I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the provision of legal aid.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to move the motion in this critical debate on legal aid provision in the United Kingdom. As ever, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.
When people lack the money or knowledge to enforce their rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on. It is unacceptable that, in 2017, justice is fast regressing to a system that is not served to all, but instead belongs to those with the deepest pockets. Failings in the legal aid system are taking away people’s ability to defend their rights in practice, which is creating a system where a person’s income or economic status is a key determinant of whose rights matter when they are most needed.
That increasingly worrying situation is the result of a conscious political choice to restrict access. Just as the Labour party was founded more than a century ago to give working people representation in Parliament, legal aid was introduced by Clement Attlee’s pioneering Labour Government in 1949, alongside the pillars of the welfare state, to rebalance the scales of justice. The principle underpinning its creation was the belief that every person should have equal access to, and protection under, the law, regardless of financial position or social status. That was, and still is, a key way to support our ambition for a fairer society.
Since then, legal aid has been a lifeline for the vulnerable. It has funded action to stop justice being available only to the privileged few in a wide range of areas, from housing and family break-ups to benefits assessments. As Lord Bach stated in a Fabian Society investigation of the state of legal aid, which was recently commissioned by the Labour party:
“We will all lean on the law at some point in our lives…
an effective legal system in which all can access justice fairly is the cornerstone of a free society…The law guarantees our rights, underlines our duties, and provides an equitable and orderly means of resolving disputes.”
But in all parts of the UK it is becoming harder and harder for the poorest people to access justice. Access to legal aid lawyers continues to become ever more difficult, with the Law Society warning of “legal aid deserts” where there are no legal providers, or just a sole legal provider, for whole regions.
Absolutely. I will refer to that statistic later. It is a shocking indictment of the cuts and the attrition of the access available to the weakest in our society, who rely on that point of contact and are otherwise shut out of the legal system altogether. Where in our country someone lives should never affect their ability to access justice, but it does, because of the wide variation in availability of legal aid providers.
Legal aid is often a lifeline, particularly for women, when the case is domestic violence, family law or employment tribunals on equal pay, unfair dismissal or discrimination. In my constituency and across the country, it is clear that we need to relearn just how critical legal aid is as a cornerstone of a civilised society. Although Scotland has a distinctive legal system within the United Kingdom, the Law Society of Scotland recently raised concerns about the sustainability of the legal aid system there, stating that, in particular,
“current rates of payment for legal aid work risk making the provision of legal services to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society” simply “uneconomical”. We already know that gaps are developing in the provision of legal aid in parts of Scotland, and we must work hard to stop those gaps growing. The Law Society of Scotland also said that a lack of investment in legal assistance had made it
“increasingly difficult to maintain a sustainable, high-quality legal assistance system” across Scotland. It urged crucial investment to halt the ongoing real-terms decrease in legal aid funding.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the Scottish Government’s review of legal aid? The legislation is 30 years old, and the Government now seek to ensure that full access to public legal aid continues.
I think we both recognise that the situation in England and Wales is much more acute than it is in Scotland, but none the less, there are challenges facing the legal system in Scotland. I welcome that review and I hope it will take into consideration the financial constraints that legal aid provision in Scotland has faced in recent years, and take heed of what the Law Society of Scotland has urged.
To look back at the wider issue, an increasing lack of funds across the UK means that a growing number of solicitors will be unable to take on legal aid cases. The report “The financial health of legal aid firms in Scotland” of February this year found that those relying on legal aid might soon be unable to find a solicitor because many law firms simply cannot afford to carry out legal aid work.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and giving us a chance to intervene or speak on the subject. On average, since 2011, Northern Ireland’s annual bill for legal aid has been in excess of £102 million. Does he agree that, as we live in an increasingly litigious world, legal aid must be available to support those who have been wronged and cannot afford redress? Does he further agree that we must ensure they have protection? Protection is what they need, which is why they need legal aid.
I agree. The fundamental, critical point of judgment on this is equality of access, not necessarily cost. Cost is a secondary consideration. Access is the fundamental right that all should be entitled to. That is the challenge we face, whereby some of the smallest legal aid firms are carrying out legal aid work at a loss and are at serious risk of not being able to offer legal aid work at all. Civil legal aid solicitors are paid for only approximately two thirds of the work they carry out, and criminal legal aid solicitors are paid for only three quarters of the work they carry out.
As if that were not bad enough, we have seen even greater ravages to the system in England and Wales following the cuts made by the Tory Government. That has taught us what happens when access to justice is removed from people in our democracy: further inequality, marginalisation of the most vulnerable, a self-defeating increased cost to the public purse and a fundamental impact on our society.
Access to justice has been seriously undermined by the Conservative Government, with hundreds of thousands of people unable to afford to defend their rights following savage cuts to the legal aid budget as part of the 2012 reforms, where the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—LASPO—left many vulnerable people unable to defend themselves in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits. We have seen not only a decline in access to legal aid providers, but, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock, the number of providers cut by a shocking 20% in just five years, and a limiting of the scope of legal aid itself. It has been an all-out assault on justice.
This summer’s Supreme Court ruling that the Government acted unlawfully by imposing employment tribunal fees underlines just how far they have gone in restricting people’s access to justice. We have a Tory Government attacking people’s living standards and, at the same time, deliberately undermining their ability to defend themselves from those very attacks. It is a cynical, Kafkaesque nightmare perpetrated on the poorest. Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Thomas, has said:
“Our justice system has become unaffordable to most.”
Amnesty International’s 2016 report, “Cuts that hurt: the impact of legal aid cuts in England on access to justice”, states:
“Cuts to legal aid imposed by this Government have decimated access to justice and left thousands of the most vulnerable without essential legal advice and support. We are in danger of creating a two-tier civil justice system, open to those who can afford it, but increasingly closed to the poorest and most in need of its protection. From parents fighting for access to their children, to those trying to stay in the country they have grown up in, and to people with mental health problems at risk of homelessness, these cuts have hit the most vulnerable, the most.”
LASPO removed whole areas of law from the scope of legal aid and drastically reduced the percentage of the population eligible for the legal advice service and representation that still exists. Spending has fallen from £2.2 billion to £1.62 billion per year. As a result, the number of civil legal aid cases, which was 573,744 in the year to April 2013, has now fallen to a shocking 146,618 in the year to April 2017. In some regions the fall was even greater. For example, in October The Independent reported:
“Legal aid cuts have triggered a staggering 99.5 per cent collapse in the number of people receiving state help in benefits cases” with just 440 claimants given assistance in the last financial year, down from a massive 83,000 before the £1 billion of cuts imposed by the Tories. That is absolutely shocking.
One of the Government’s stated aims in no longer funding lawyers for low-income couples arguing over divorce or child arrangements was that that would encourage them to seek mediation instead, but the Government have acknowledged that the opposite has happened, with mediation numbers falling off a cliff and a huge rise in people attempting to navigate the family courts with no lawyer or legal representation. Even more appallingly, not a single person with a discrimination complaint was referred to see a legal aid lawyer in the last year, as BuzzFeed News revealed just last week.
During a time of austerity, it is fanciful to believe that the decline in numbers reflects reduced demand. This is a deliberate effort to exploit the weakest in our society and deny their access to justice.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, first for his securing the debate, and secondly for making such a passionate case. The reality is that professional, useful advice for vulnerable people is decreasing—not only through the diminishing of legal aid, but with citizens advice bureaux being threatened with closure, such as in my constituency. These people need help, and we have a responsibility to them to devise a system that will give them that help.
Absolutely. Wherever vulnerable people in our society turn, they are increasingly finding impediments and blockages placed in their way. That is increasing all sorts of problems and harms that people in society face, including mental and physical health problems.
Although many people have decided to give up pursuing a legal case because of the cost, even where legal aid remains in scope, many now represent themselves in court, as has been mentioned. Since LASPO, for the first time, more than half of parents—58%, many of whom were mothers from poor backgrounds—went to court without a lawyer to fight their case.
As we all know, in many walks of life, spending money early on leads to savings down the line. It was therefore very depressing to observe cuts falling particularly hard on services that help to advise whether someone has a case and how to proceed in the first place, which can prevent problems from escalating. Increasing funding would be a money saving measure, but instead, as so often, the Government, who profess their fiscal prudence, end up throwing good money after bad in their obsession with destroying the fabric of our public realm.
The Government are reviewing LASPO, and we urge them to guarantee the reintroduction of legal aid for early advice from a lawyer as part of that review. Restoring early legal advice would not only help to resolve many legal problems, but would save taxpayers’ money by reducing pressures on the courts and elsewhere. In October, the new President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, described LASPO cuts as “a false economy”, and said that early legal advice would help to resolve many legal problems and save money by reducing pressure on the courts system.
As the Law Society explained this week, early legal advice helps to address problems before they escalate. For example, in housing law, although legal aid is still available to defend possession proceedings, that is only when the loss of a home is imminent and the landlord has sought an order for possession. A lack of early legal advice can create unnecessary costs for the taxpayer due to cases going to court that could have been resolved earlier. Worsening legal problems can also create other knock-on effects and costs to the public purse, potentially causing issues such as poor health, homelessness and debt.
Early legal advice is vital in housing law. For example, a lack of early advice on minor disrepair issues can mean problems such as faulty electrics or a leaking roof escalating, potentially creating health, social and financial problems, as we most appallingly saw earlier this year with the Grenfell Tower disaster. Early legal advice is also important in family law, but is no longer available in family breakdown and child custody cases. Because of that, mediation referrals have plummeted, putting pressure on courts and therefore on public finances. A Citizens Advice study estimated that for every £1 of legal aid spending on housing advice, the state saved £2.34; for every £1 spent on debt advice, it saved £2.98; and for every £1 spent on employment advice, a massive £7.13 was saved.
The Labour party is seeking to repair the broken justice system to ensure that people can defend their basic legal rights. One of the first acts of my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was to support the establishment of a commission on access to justice, made up of legal experts and chaired by Lord Bach, whom I mentioned earlier. Over nearly two years, the commission heard from more than 100 individuals and organisations with special expertise in all parts of the justice system. The commission proposed, among other measures, the return of legal aid in some areas and increasing the availability of early legal advice.
There is much in Lord Bach’s report that the Government could implement ahead of the next general election if they were serious about restoring access to justice. Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto committed the party to
“immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts”,
which includes protecting children from harm and most domestic violence cases. The Government should do the same.
The Government must use their review of LASPO fundamentally to repair the damage caused by their legal aid reforms since 2012, rather than simply to apply a sticking plaster to what is, it is increasingly apparent, a broken system. They should also use the review to look at restoring legal aid for early legal help on housing and welfare benefits. Opposition Members also urge the Government to review the legal aid means tests, including the capital tests for those on income-related benefits.
In Scotland, we need to continue pushing to ensure sufficient resources for legal aid providers, so that provision is maintained. That includes challenging the long-term underfunding of the system, and the modernisation and streamlining of legal aid, to ensure that access is available to any citizen in need of its support. My constituents, and people across Scotland and the rest of the UK, must be able to have confidence in our legal systems and must be confident that the social status or wealth of an individual cannot usurp the most basic concepts of right and wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank Mr Sweeney for securing the debate. May I also compliment the Labour party on introducing legal aid 68 years ago? It has been of great benefit to many over that 68 years and continues to be so.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are rightly proud that everyone is equal under the law. Across the United Kingdom, our separate legal systems are united by the common principles of fairness, equality and respect for human rights, which have made the British justice system respected worldwide. Legal aid is crucial to ensuring that our justice systems live up to those principles. Without it, access to justice would become the preserve only of those who can afford it.
Legal aid is there to ensure that as many persons as practicable, regardless of their ability to pay legal fees, which can be very expensive, have access to fair representation in a bid to obtain their legal rights. That is why our legal aid system must be sustainable and up to date, and I for one am pleased that the UK Government recognise that and have reformed legal aid in England and Wales to modernise it and to put it on a secure financial footing for the future.
United Kingdom spending on legal aid massively outstrips the European average; it dwarfs that of most European nations and is, surprisingly, above France’s and Germany’s.
The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples and oranges. The legal systems in France and other European countries are different from the adversarial system we have here. It is probably not fair to compare only legal aid budgets, without looking at overall justice costs.
The hon. Gentleman may well be right. The fact is that we spend more per head than Germany, but I accept that that there are other considerations to take into account.
The hon. Gentleman is making an error by reading out the Minister’s speech from the LASPO Bill’s Committee stage five years ago. What he says is no truer now than it was then. He should be looking at the effects of legal aid cuts, not the incorrect predictions made at the time the legislation went through Parliament.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the decisions on cuts. They adjusted the system. It is a suitable system, which still remains, and I am sure many people will continue to benefit from legal aid.
As has been said, legal aid is devolved in Scotland and decisions on its provision are quite rightly the Scottish Government’s to make. Funding for legal aid was £138 million in a previous year; it is now down slightly by some millions, but it is fair to say that, per head, Scotland’s legal aid spending is broadly in line with the UK Government’s spending in England and Wales. When the Scottish National party came to power in Holyrood, Scotland’s legal aid system was 20 years old, as Stuart C. McDonald said. Ten years on, that system is 30 years old, and it now needs to be looked at, as I am sure he would agree. After a decade of SNP rule, and despite the enactment of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, Scotland’s legal system would benefit from further reform.
It is true that we have seen some change, such as the court decision that prompted the Scottish Government to reconsider its Ministers’ decision not to exercise discretion to provide legal aid to an alleged victim of domestic abuse who sought to oppose attempts to obtain her medical records. The Scottish Conservatives had repeatedly asked for that change, to bring Scotland into line with England and Wales, but the Scottish Government repeatedly refused until the courts forced their hand. They were then slow to act: only in February did they finally see fit to launch a review of the Scottish legal aid system, which I commend. I hope the Scottish Government act soon and follow the UK Government’s lead in making legal aid sustainable, modern and fit for the future.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the Scottish Government should follow the UK Government’s example by removing family, immigration, housing and welfare cases from the scope of legal aid? He cannot possibly think that that would be a positive development.
Order. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.28 pm, which hopefully will allow two minutes for Mr Sweeney to respond. If hon. Members keep their speeches to five or six minutes, that will enable me to call everyone who attempts to catch my eye.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney on securing the debate. Mindful of your guidance, Mr Robertson, I will minimise my comments on the detail of what has happened to legal aid provision since LASPO was introduced.
The position was summarised very well this summer in the Law Society’s report, “Access Denied?”, which said that legal aid is no longer available for those who need it, that those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access, that wide gaps in provision are not being addressed and that LASPO has had a wide and detrimental impact on the state and on society. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East explained how the scale of the reductions in legal aid provision has worked out in practice. We know that the total number of matter starts for legal aid and controlled legal work fell from 933,815 cases in 2010 to 147,107 this year. That is a staggeringly precipitous fall in provision.
Although this debate is rightly about legal aid, it is worth mentioning the wider context. Legal aid sits alongside the provision of wider advice services, many of which were funded by local authorities, and in many cases there was co-provision of such services in the same premises. Because local government has had a 40% fall in funding in recent years, mainstream advice services and other forms of early help have also taken a significant cut. As my hon. Friend said, and I am sure everyone who contributes to the debate will say, it is often the most vulnerable people who experience the most deleterious consequences—people who are suffering from mental health problems, people who have language difficulties, people who are extremely stressed as a consequence of debt, benefit difficulties and impending homelessness. They need that assistance, but it has not been available.
I have one of the largest constituency caseloads involving disability benefits in the country. Often it is not understood that this is an inner-London issue, but it very much is. Those of us who have a significant welfare caseload in our constituencies have seen in particular the consequences for people who are losing their employment and support allowance, have lost their disability living allowance or are making claims for personal independence payments. They have found it extremely difficult to get not only early help but representation and advocacy to get their benefits restored, despite the well documented evidence that such early assistance significantly improves a claimant’s chances of being successful at appeal.
The local advice agencies in my area draw a clear line between the lack of early help, the consequences for people losing their benefits and the direct rise of dependency on food banks. There has been a 56% rise in the number of cases going to my local citizens advice bureau—often cases that previously would have been picked up by early legal help—and my food bank in north Paddington has seen a doubling of demand for its services. Those things are connected. In my borough, there has been a 93% fall in family legal help cases; a 26% fall in housing legal help; a 51% fall in housing certificated assistance, despite a sharp rise in homelessness, in common with many other local areas; a 100% fall in welfare; a 99% fall in debt advice; and a 46% fall in the number of solicitors’ firms taking on cases. In common with many Members of Parliament, I have experienced a sharp rise in the number of people who are coming to me and to local councillors to seek the kind of legal help that they are no longer able to get because of the fall in legal aid provision.
Today’s debate is very well timed, with the announcement that the post-implementation review is under way. As has been referred to, the Law Society’s report on early help came out this week. I am sure I will not be the only one to reference and give huge credit to the Willy Bach commission report, which sets out a comprehensive analysis of what has happened since LASPO was introduced. I hope the work of the Law Society and the Bach commission will inform the Minister’s review.
I have few questions for the Minister about the post-implementation review; it will be helpful if he can provide answers. What reassurances can he give that the post-implementation review will be thorough? The memorandum to the Justice Committee says it will be thorough, but we want to know what that will mean. Who will be on the advisory panels? Will the thorough work and consultation necessary to make this a meaningful review take place before Parliament rises for the summer recess next year? How will the review be conducted? Who will be consulted and how? Will there be written and oral evidence?
On early advice, we know about the impact of the reduction in numbers on the sustainability of practitioners. Ministry of Justice figures indicate that the total number of not-for-profits with legal aid contracts has fallen from 870 to 95 post-LASPO. That is a drop of 89%. Can the Minister assure us that, whatever the outcomes of the post-implementation review, there will be enough providers to pick up any additional provision of advice? Do the Government know how many people will be available to deliver legal aid after the changes are made? Many areas are now advice deserts, with law centres and practitioners having had to close. Who will provide this advice and what is the Minister doing to ensure there will be a flow of lawyers into an increasingly stressful and under-resourced legal aid service?
The Government say that the exceptional case funding system is a safety net. When it was discussed in Parliament, we were told that 5,000 to 7,000 cases per year were expected. In fact, the number of cases has been extremely limited. How will the Minister review that and ensure that exceptional case funding is adequate for purposes?
How will the shortfall in county court offices since their reduction be met? County court offices used to be able to assist not by giving legal advice, but at least providing some support—for example, if someone was applying to suspend a warrant, they could obtain the form and get the application listed through the county court. Now, many court offices are open for very limited hours or just for appointments, and that is another hurdle. Is the Minister aware of that, and can he give us some reassurance?
Finally, on the promises to improve the service for victims of domestic violence, we know that reforms have been thrashed out and that Ministry of Justice staff and family groups have been working on it. The Government have admitted that changes need to be made to protect those suffering domestic abuse, but that has been delayed for a number of months. Can the Minister tell us when those changes will be brought in?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to follow my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney and my hon. Friend Ms Buck, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. They have set out some of the facts and figures that show the astonishing decline in the availability of legal aid since the enactment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and I will not repeat those.
I had the pleasure—if that is the right word—of leading for the Opposition, along with my hon. Friend Helen Goodman and the noble Lord Bach, during the year-long Committee stage of the LASPO Bill. It was pretty obvious then what the consequences were going to be, but we do not have to predict now; we have seen those consequences. That is why I was quite surprised to hear the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) repeating the shibboleths that we heard at that time: that this was just bringing us into line with what happens elsewhere, and that these were perfectly reasonable and affordable cuts. The figures we have seen show that the contrary is true.
In the other place, I think there were 11 defeats and three tied votes, all of which unfortunately were substantially reversed in this House. That was a significant indication of the level of concern, even while the Bill was going through Parliament. Were it not for the extraordinary discipline of the Liberal Democrats—this is possibly the only issue that all Members here will agree on—there would have been many more defeats, and we might have stopped some of these cuts going through. The Liberal Democrats turned out night after night to vote for legal aid cuts in the most stringent terms and ensure that those changes went through, with better discipline than the Tory peers, and we will continue to remind them about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, that was a sea change. It was reversing the legal aid policies put forward by the Labour Government of 1945 to ’50. The Bill at that time made legal aid permissive. In other words, legal aid was available, except where the legislation said that it was not available. LASPO completely reverses that and says that one has to define exactly the very specific means by which legal aid is made available. The net result is not only that in many areas, particularly of social welfare law, legal aid has been withdrawn specifically, but that in reality it has been withdrawn entirely, because neither the voluntary sector nor private practice can continue it with what meagre fare there is to allow it to operate. Many areas of the country have become advice deserts.
To pick up on the advice deserts point, during my 16-year parliamentary career, the Ministry of Justice and the local justice departments have very much moved away from their local communities and are now incredibly distant from the communities that they served. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to localise provision in a much better and more responsive way?
My hon. Friend knows that very well from his professional background. I entirely agree with him and will say in a moment what I think should be done to reverse what he describes, but while we are diagnosing the problem, I must point out that there has been an extraordinary effect on the advice sector and on the courts. Indeed, we can see it in our surgeries. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I now provide 20-minute appointments, and often that is not long enough to see constituents. I refrain, not having a practice specifically any more, from giving legal advice, but that is in effect what people are coming to ask for, whether in areas of family law, immigration, employment or housing. Those are not the sorts of complaint or issue that I remember dealing with 10 years ago. These people have come, possibly as a first port of call, to Members of Parliament—research has shown that this is the case—simply because there is nowhere else to go.
Let me use the example of my constituency. Many of our advice agencies—such as Threshold, which provides specialist housing advice, and the Shepherd’s Bush advice centre—and many of the specialist agencies dealing with specific communities have simply closed down. I am very lucky, in that I have an extremely supportive council. Labour took power again in 2014, and it is now rehousing and properly funding the Hammersmith law centre, which I have had the pleasure of being on the board of for some 30 years. Therefore, along with the citizens advice bureaux, some good provision remains in the area, but I suspect that it is the exception rather than the rule.
I pay tribute not only to Members of the House who have taken an interest in the subject, but to the practitioners out there in the country. My law centre is watched over by Sue James, who was legal aid lawyer of the year after 25 years of practice and setting up other law centres in London. It is the dedication of people such as her, Carol Storer of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Nicola Mackintosh that has in effect, despite the Government’s best efforts, kept the legal aid system going in this country over this period. However, it is absolutely at breaking point.
I therefore have something to ask of the Minister, who is an intelligent and fair man and knowledgeable in these areas, when he does the review, but let me just say this about the review. It is being done at the last possible moment, and possibly beyond the last possible moment, because if I remember correctly, the undertaking given during the passage of LASPO was that the review would begin within three to five years. I think that the end of the five years will be next April and that the review is not starting till the summer, so we really are squeezing it into the last minute. I hope that it will be a proper review and that it will look in particular at the Bach commission report, because that is an extremely thorough report by the people in this country who probably best understand the issue and the problems that arise. I hope that it looks across the board at what needs to be done—not just, as we have heard, at early advice and the restoration of legal aid, particularly in areas of social welfare law, but at the means test, at the system for contributions and, as my hon. Friend Ian C. Lucas said, at the localisation of services, because nothing is really working at the moment.
We need a root-and-branch review, and fresh legislation may well be required. Unless the Government are prepared to look at the matter with fresh eyes, instead of taking the blinkered approach that was taken with LASPO, it will be not only bad for my constituents and those of other hon. Members present, but bad for the system of justice in this country, because the courts are not functioning properly. Litigants in person are flooding the courts, and there are delays throughout the system. The compound effect of cuts in the legal aid system and the Courts Service over the past five years is that we can no longer say that we have a system of justice of which we can be proud, and I greatly regret that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. As a former employment rights lawyer, I am passionate about legal aid and access to justice. Many of my hon. Friends have made important points about the need for increased access to justice. Coincidentally, yesterday I chaired a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party’s Back-Bench justice group on this very subject, drawing particular attention to the measures outlined in the Bach commission report, which aims to redress the injustices caused by LASPO.
I am firmly of the view that the abolition of legal aid for early advice is a false economy. It means that far more cases end up going to court that should have been resolved earlier. My experience as a lawyer was that when I gave clients clear legal advice from the outset about their prospects of success, they were far less likely to pursue an unmeritorious claim through the courts. The removal of legal aid for early advice has caused a clear and undeniable increase in the number of people representing themselves in court.
National Audit Office figures and research by the Law Society show a staggering 30% increase in litigants in person in family court cases. In that emotive area of law, litigants in person often result in longer hearings and in victims of domestic violence having to face their abuser in court. Moreover, the failure to provide early legal advice can have significant knock-on effects for other departments and the public purse. For example, as my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney said, the cost of someone being evicted because they have not had access to housing legal advice at an early stage is far greater than the cost of the advice itself. That is not to mention the societal impact.
However, I want to use this opportunity to talk about legal aid for inquests. A number of my hon. Friends will be aware of, and indeed many of them have signed, early-day motion 498 on this important matter, which I tabled. It calls for legal aid to be provided to the family of the deceased in all cases in which the state is funding one or more of the other parties. Inquests have never fallen into the main body of legal aid provision. Legal aid for inquests is available only at the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency under the “exceptional case funding” provisions introduced by LASPO. Exceptional case funding is available for categories of law that are not ordinarily in scope of legal aid, and where failure to provide legal services would breach an individual’s rights under the European convention on human rights, or other enforceable EU rights relating to the provision of legal services.
However, exceptional case funding applications are complex and time-consuming. Lawyers receive payment for an ECF application only if it is successful, and although the Legal Aid Agency will accept applications from applicants in person, very few are made and even fewer are successful. In addition, the definition of exceptional case funding does not provide an adequate safety net for inquests, as an applicant has to show that there is an article 2—right to life—issue, or a wider public interest in legal aid being granted.
The Law Society’s “Access Denied?” publication drew attention to the case of five-year-old Alexia Walenkaki, who died of head injuries while playing on a swing in the children’s play area in a London park. The swing was suspended from two tree trunks when one of them toppled over on to the child. Alexia’s mother applied for exceptional case funding in order to be represented at the inquest. However, the application for legal aid was refused by the Legal Aid Agency on the grounds that it did not meet the LASPO requirement that the representation be in the public interest, despite the fact that the case involved consideration of a local authority’s responsibility to ensure safety in a public area.
Legal aid for inquests is even more important, as most bereaved families will not be able to afford private legal representation, particularly for lengthy inquest hearings. Most recently, the Hillsborough inquiry shone a light on this important issue, calling for families to be fully involved in inquests, and for equality of arms, so that no one is under-represented in these critical types of cases.
The Bach commission report acknowledges that access to justice is lacking in this area and that reform is urgently needed. I tabled early-day motion 498 on legal aid for inquests as I believe the Government should take urgent action in this area, and provide access to justice for bereaved families by providing crucially needed legal aid to the family of the deceased in all cases where the state is funding one or more of the other parties. I urge Members from across the House to sign the early-day motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney on securing it.
To get perspective on the problem of access to legal aid, we first need to remind ourselves that the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 came in as one of the Labour Government’s swathe of measures to help alleviate poverty in the welfare state following the 1945 election victory. Over the years, scope was increased to keep up to date with social developments, but over the past 25 years, we have seen a gradual erosion of legal aid, culminating in a full-scale attack on it via the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO, to give it its shorter name.
Let us be under no illusions: LASPO was introduced under the cloak of austerity to cut the legal aid budget. To that extent, it has succeeded, cutting the total spend on legal aid from £2.499 billion in 2010-11 to £1.554 billion in 2016-17: a cut of £945 million, or 38%, to give the percentage total. Taking areas such as some family law and welfare law out of scope is having a devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Couples who split up, sometimes acrimoniously, and who disagree about access to the children are not legally represented owing to the cuts, leaving a judge in the invidious position of trying to sort out the case with limited documentation. Who knows what the impact will be on the children while the court tries to muddle through the process? This could be the most important decision in a child’s life, yet we are likely to have two aggrieved people thrown into a combative situation, with terminology and procedures misunderstood, and making matters worse for the child. Or there are instances where a vulnerable person has a valid case for claiming backdated housing benefit, but is unable to find a lawyer to help, because an application to a social security tribunal is taken out of scope, leaving the person with arrears of rent and facing eviction. We have gone from 80% of people being eligible for legal aid to only 20% being eligible. The onslaught on the legal profession owing to the legal aid cuts has resulted in legal aid firms closing, leaving legal advice deserts in more and more parts of the country, and people desperate, with little chance of getting proper representation.
In a written answer to my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero on
The legal aid cuts are also impacting on barristers. Junior criminal barristers face a crazy situation whereby they would receive only £44 for doing a plea in Coventry tomorrow, when the train fare is £83 and not recoverable. Would anybody seriously do a job that would leave them out of pocket? The truth is that the legal aid cuts are a false economy and end up costing us all more in the long run. Goldsmiths University has estimated that every £1 cut in legal aid costs us all £6 in additional services provided.
So what is to be done? Hon. Friends have referred to the Bach commission’s final report, “The Right to Justice”, which was published in September this year. It made 22 recommendations to improve access to justice and redress the failure of LASPO, which has left many people unable to access justice because they cannot afford to. The 22 recommendations, as touched on by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter, include: creating a right to justice Act, which would enshrine the right of access to justice in statute and would set up a justice commission to advise, monitor and enforce that right; reforming legal aid assessment, so that anyone in receipt of a means-tested benefit is automatically eligible for legal aid; broadening the scope of legal aid, so that all social welfare law, matters relating to children, various areas of private family law, immigration and inquests, which were so eloquently referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, are brought back into scope; replacing the Legal Aid Agency with an independent body that is at arm’s length from the Government; and reducing the administrative burden on providers.
In addition to implementing the recommendations, we need to repeal LASPO and make sure that legal advice is provided earlier and quicker, along the lines of the old green form scheme. We also need to embrace technology and educate the general public as to their rights, and we need to ensure that the legal aid system is fit for purpose, so that we do not get miscarriages of justice because of the cuts, or see the decimation of the legal profession that does legal aid work. We should never forget that the legal aid scheme was designed to help the most vulnerable in our society, and right now the system is failing them.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
Today’s debate cuts right to the heart of what we mean by justice. Legal aid has been a crucial instrument in ensuring that equal access to justice is attainable. After all, if access to justice is not equal, can we call it justice at all? My surgeries, like those of my hon. Friend Ms Buck, are full of people seeking legal advice. Unlike many hon. Members here today, I do not have a legal background.
The exact meaning of justice may be contested, but it should be quite clear to us all that a society that allows for adequate legal representation for those who can afford it while denying the same opportunities for those who cannot is not a just society. As we have heard, the Law Society has reported on the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Its findings are stark and paint a picture of a Government prioritising savings for the Exchequer over basic legal rights for our citizens. It makes 25 recommendations to improve the provision of legal advice and representation. It will be interesting to see whether this Government will actually implement the recommendations of one of our foremost legal organisations.
The 2012 Act has significantly reduced the number of areas of law in which legal aid applies, while at the same time tightening the criteria for qualification. Among the findings of the Law Society report is one that
“Large numbers of people, including children and those on low incomes, are now excluded from whole areas of free or subsidised legal advice”.
It describes changes to means testing as “counter-intuitive”, and even where people qualify for legal aid, they often struggle to access it due to inadequate provision of services, resulting in “legal aid deserts”.
Reductions in central Government funds have forced many high street legal aid firms and third sector providers to go under. The increase in legal aid deserts has resulted in many people who qualify for legal aid not being able to access it. Almost a third of the legal aid areas in England and Wales have one or no legal aid housing advice providers. Neither Shropshire nor Suffolk have a housing legal aid advice provider. Children, people with mental health issues and people with low levels of literacy and numeracy are now excluded as a result of changes to legal aid provision.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights condemned the lack of access to justice for children back in 2015 and called on the Government to correct that astonishing situation. Those calls were not heeded. The Act prevents the maximum income cap for legal aid qualification from increasing with inflation, while capital eligibility rules mean there are many benefit claimants who do not qualify for legal aid. The Justice Committee has argued that a lack of sufficient advertising of the mandatory telephone gateway has resulted in its underuse, although it is intended to be the initial point of contact for legal advice on debt, special educational needs and discrimination law.
At every turn the Government have sought to cut public services, but equal access to justice must be one of the fundamental tenets of a healthy democracy. That the Government so wilfully undermine that principle tells us all we need to know about their priorities: not ensuring fairness, not ensuring the preservation of basic rights and not ensuring a good society. Social security for the rich, economic insecurity for the rest. Without legal representation being available to all, we no longer have a system of justice, but a system of privilege.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. We have had a good and lively debate, and I congratulate Mr Sweeney on securing it. This is an important subject because a well functioning system of legal aid is a crucial means of ensuring access to justice, and is therefore essential for the operation of the rule of law and democracy itself. This subject has been raised a number of times even in the couple of years that I have been an MP, reflecting widespread concerns about the radical overhaul of legal aid since LASPO came into force in 2013. With the review of LASPO going ahead in England and Wales, and the Scottish Government conducting their own review of legislation that is now 30 years old, now is an appropriate time for this debate.
The hon. Gentleman a couple of points in relation to Scotland, and if time permits I will say a little bit about that. For now, suffice it to say that the review there will be building from a strong position. That is remarkably different from the system created by the UK Government, where a 38% real-terms cut in funding has left hundreds of thousands to navigate the law and the legal system alone, not because of their means, but because the scope of the legal aid scheme has been drastically reduced. If you went down to the courts in London, Mr Robertson, you would struggle to find a single litigant lawyer or judge who would say that the system in England and Wales is better than the one in Scotland; it would be the reverse.
While the UK Government’s review of LASPO is welcome, if we are honest we already know it has been a complete disaster—one which, as Andy Slaughter has pointed out, could have been averted had the Government engaged in discussion and looked at evidence before introducing LASPO, rather than five years after it wreaked havoc on the justice system. Whether it is the Justice Committee of this House, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the legal profession or third sector organisations, few if any have a good word to say about the reforms.
The statistics, as Ms Buck said, illustrate a drastic reduction in the number of cases of publicly funded representation right from the implementation of the LASPO Act, but it is individual stories about those who are left without access to justice that bring home the reality of the problem. Credit must be given to organisations such as Amnesty International and Coram Children’s Legal Centre for highlighting some of those cases in various reports and briefings. When the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is saying publicly that
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most,” there can be no doubt that we are in a bad place.
There cannot be a starker example of austerity at all costs than the LASPO cuts, which were introduced without
“any proper evidence-based research,” according to chairman of the Bar association. Parliament’s Justice Committee found that LASPO had unambiguously failed to achieve three of its four stated goals, including targeting legal aid towards those who need it most, delivering better overall value for money, and discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation. In relation to the fourth and final goal the Committee stated that
“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants”.
On the subject of claimant savings, which Ellie Reeves and others spoke about, I hope the review will consider the extent to which those so-called savings, like too many other austerity cuts, are in fact costs passed on to other public services. As the Justice Committee also said, efforts to target legal aid
“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.”
Money saved by the Ministry of Justice means more money spent by homelessness services and social work departments. Meanwhile courts are required to spend more time and resources dealing with party litigants.
The arguments for LASPO the Government used in previous debates have struggled to stand up to scrutiny. They sought to justify the cuts on the basis that it encourages mediation, but as we heard earlier, that is not happening, and I think the Government now acknowledge that. In the year prior to LASPO, there were 31,000 mediation assessments and 14,000 mediation starts, but by 2016-17 the numbers had fallen to 13,000 mediation assessments and 7,700 mediation starts—reductions of 61% and 44% respectively. As the Government were told beforehand, people who are given early legal advice will be more inclined than those who are not to the view that mediation is the best course of action.
Another key argument used in the past is that the legal aid system in England and Wales is one of the most generous in the world. Bill Grant hinted at that. As I said in my intervention on him, that is comparing apples and oranges, particularly in relation to continental systems, which are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, so more resources are spent on other parts of the system than legal aid. England and Wales may have one of the most expensive legal aid bills in Europe, but it is a long way down the European league table overall when we look at the total bill for providing justice.
The Scottish Government have announced their own review of legal aid. In previous debates on this subject, I quoted from an article by Professor Alan Paterson, so I am pleased to see he has been included in the Government’s review board. He is a legal academic at Strathclyde University and chair of the International Legal Action Group. In 2012, as LASPO was making its way through this place, he wrote an article highlighting that in fact, per capita spend on legal aid in England and Wales had been higher than in Scotland. He asked whether that meant that provision in Scotland was less extensive or generous. The answer was that, on the contrary, the Scottish scheme was still more generous, even in those circumstances.
First, the Scottish system was more generous in scope. That is even more true after LASPO. For example, in Scotland you can still get legal advice and representation on housing, debt, immigration, family, employment law and so on. Secondly, it remained more generous in coverage, with a significantly higher proportion of the population financially eligible for legal aid. The Scottish system had managed to achieve lower per capita spend while remaining more generous. Even if all of Lord Bach’s recommendations were fulfilled, Scotland’s system would remain more generous than that in England and Wales. There were some reasons why that was the case, which went well beyond policy choices, including, for example, the high prevalence of expensive fraud cases in England and Wales. However, for Professor Paterson the crucial difference was that there had been greater success in Scotland in reforming court procedures, both civil and criminal, to reduce legal aid spend. Instead of reducing legal aid spend by not funding people properly to access the court system, the court system was made cheaper to fund access to.
“specific measures to reform Scotland’s system of legal aid, maintaining access to public funding for legal advice and representation in both civil and criminal cases, alongside measures to expand access to alternative methods of resolving disputes.”
It is due to report back in February and I hope its findings can feed into the LASPO review. It will most definitely not follow the example of the UK Government in introducing LASPO, despite the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The one thing I am absolutely confident about is that those reforms have a greater chance of success, because they start from a strong place and they will be informed by evidence and engagement rather than the product of a simple austerity drive. That is the key flaw in LASPO, and it is why this Government should rip it up and start again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney on securing this important debate. He made an excellent speech. The Government’s approach to access to justice is a marker of the way they view the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Though I am relatively new to this brief, some would say I am lucky—or unlucky—to have so many former lawyers on my own side. Regardless of expertise, what unites us in the Labour party is that we all believe that no matter how much someone earns, what their background is or where they come from, our justice system should be there for them when they are at their most vulnerable.
The truth is that the changes to legal aid mean that it is now one rule for the rich and another for the poor. Those with money can pay for justice; those without are forced to represent themselves, or give up on justice altogether. That was at the crux of the argument made by my hon. Friend Laura Smith, who said it is just not a just society if it operates like that. If someone has been a victim of discrimination at work, has had their benefits wrongly sanctioned and faces losing their home, or is fighting a bitter custody battle, the very last thing they have the energy for is fighting a lengthy battle to get legal representation or, worse, representing themselves in court.
Earlier this year, the Labour party’s review of legal aid, chaired by Lord Willy Bach, found a system that was fundamentally broken. My hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous detailed many of the Bach commission’s recommendations. In particular, the Opposition are concerned about the impact changes have had on victims, particularly the most vulnerable such as children and victims of domestic abuse; the knock-on impact on access to justice more broadly, even for areas of law still within the scope of legal aid; and the human and financial cost of LASPO.
Legal professionals have warned of a sharp rise in the number of people forced to represent themselves in court to access the justice they deserve. The Public and Commercial Services Union has warned that aggression towards court staff is rising because people are left to navigate the complex legal and court system on their own and without support. Recently, BuzzFeed reported that a grandmother in Gloucester had to represent herself in court to prevent her grandchild from being put up for adoption, because legal aid is no longer available for family law. She was told it would cost her between £10,000 and £12,000—her entire income for a year—in court fees if she paid for legal representation herself. As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, there are desperate cases like that coming through surgeries because, as he put it, “There is nowhere else to go.” Will the Minister confirm what the rise in litigants in person has been since the introduction of the LASPO Act?
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the rise in people having to represent themselves is its impact on victims of abuse. It is well known that abusers will use the court system to continue their abuse. Imagine having the courage to leave an abusive relationship—to uproot the kids and start life over—only to find five years later that that abuser is taking you to court to claim visiting rights to the children. Now imagine being told that you are not eligible for legal aid and you have a choice: go to court and represent yourself and your children, allowing your abuser to sit opposite you in court while their lawyer talks about your fitness to be a parent and even cross-examines you, or give in, give up and allow him to have contact with your kids. That is the choice women have faced because of the legal aid changes brought in by this Government.
Those changes include stringent evidence tests requiring victims to prove they have been a victim of abuse to qualify for legal aid, and a time limit on the validity of that evidence. Some women have even reported being charged up to £175 by their doctor to provide that evidence. Charities such as Rights of Women and Women’s Aid warned that these tests could rule out as many as 40% of domestic violence victims from being eligible for legal aid, and the High Court agreed, demanding that the Government remove the time limit. It has been 21 months since that ruling, yet we are still waiting for reform.
Last month, I wrote to the Justice Secretary asking for the date when changes would be introduced. I am still waiting. Will the Minister confirm now, on the record, when the Government will introduce these long overdue reforms, which organisations they have consulted in preparing the new regulations and whether they will be scrapping fees for obtaining prescribed evidence such as a doctor’s letter or police disclosure? Victims of domestic violence deserve peace of mind and justice.
It is not just within areas of law removed from the scope of legal aid where justice is being denied. According to the Law Commission, advice deserts have opened up across areas of the country because huge cuts to legal aid law have forced providers and law centres to close their doors. My hon. Friend Ms Buck made the point that that is happening alongside cuts to local government and citizens advice bureaux, so people really struggle to get the advice they need. In response to my question, the Government admitted that the number of legal aid providers has fallen by 20% since the introduction of LASPO.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that, as has been mentioned by some colleagues, many providers are making excessive personal sacrifices to try to keep some of these services on the road? I am aware of a provider in my constituency where staff have gone without wages for a month in the year to try to keep a service functioning. Those services, and those individuals who are bearing that burden as providers, need to be given praise and credit for their commitment.
I will happily give praise and credit, in particular to the people my hon. Friend mentions, but what sort of society is it where those people are having to make choices like that? I thank her for that intervention.
The number of applicants for civil legal aid for domestic violence cases such as protection orders—technically still within the scope of legal aid—has fallen by 20% since 2011-12. The number of domestic violence incidents has risen in that time, so we can only assume that that fall is due to a lack of specialist legal advice. Will the Minister commit now to reviewing urgently the availability of specialist legal aid advice for victims of domestic violence to ensure no victim is put at risk by legal aid cuts?
The human cost of the LASPO Act is hard to underestimate, but perhaps the most scandalous part of this is that we now know that instead of saving money it is likely to have cost us huge sums, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said. Last week, in response to a question from my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, the Justice Minister revealed that the budget will have fallen in real terms by 40% since 2010-11, from £9.3 billion to £5.6 billion, which risks tipping our justice system from crisis into full-blown emergency.
This week, however, a study released by the Law Society found that the removal of access to early legal advice means many more cases are ending up in lengthy court hearings rather than being resolved beforehand. Last month—I make no apologies for repeating this point—the new President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, said LASPO cuts are likely to prove “a false economy” because removal of access to early legal advice means people cannot resolve legal problems out of court, which places more pressure on courts. According to the PCS union the rise in litigants in person and failure to access early legal advice are leading to lengthy court delays.
In fact, the Government have already acknowledged that removal of early legal advice is a false economy. Last month, their post-legislative memorandum submitted to the Justice Committee admitted that legal aid cuts have led to the number of families and couples seeking mediation rather than court settlements dropping off a cliff. Labour is committed to immediately re-establishing entitlements to early legal advice in family courts once in government. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government plan to do the same, and will he confirm what assessment the Government have made of the associated costs of their cuts to legal aid?
We welcome the announcement of a review of the impact of LASPO, but for many victims this is five years too late, and without a clear timetable or commitment to act on recommendations, how can victims have the assurance they need that things will change? Will the Minister confirm on what date the review will conclude, which organisations the Government will consult as part of the review and when the Government plan to introduce any recommendations?
We might never know how many families have faced destitution or how many victims have given up on justice altogether as a result of those cuts. I hope the Government take seriously the concerns of service providers, legal professionals, court staff and victims themselves, and act to restore access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute to Mr Sweeney for securing this debate and for his powerful, tenacious speech.
One thing we all agree, at least as a matter of principle, is that legal aid is a fundamental pillar of access to justice. Last year, the Ministry of Justice spent £1.6 billion on legal aid in England and Wales, which accounts for more than a fifth of the Ministry’s budget. The Government have a responsibility to make sure that those in the greatest hardship, at the times of greatest need, can secure access to justice, that the most vulnerable are catered for, and that the resources are made available to do that. That is a responsibility that we take very seriously.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, legal aid in Scotland is a devolved matter. I appreciate that in this debate he has not talked a lot about that. It is also devolved in Northern Ireland. I can address the provision of legal aid in only England and Wales, for which we are responsible. Stuart C. McDonald raised this in relation to spending, but I would note that the Council of Europe’s most recent survey post-LASPO found that spending on legal aid per person in England and Wales was the highest of all Council of Europe members. The hon. Gentleman quite fairly made the point that we have a different system from the one used in many parts of continental Europe. Of course, the Council of Europe survey also looks at the spending per capita in Scotland, and in England and Wales it is 13% higher. Neither he nor the hon. Member for Glasgow North East touched on that, for all their critique of the system in England and Wales.
In fairness, I did touch on that by mentioning the fact that Alan Paterson highlighted the higher per capita spending in England and Wales compared with Scotland. He said that the reason for that was Scotland’s greater success in reducing the cost of courts, so the total bill was made smaller not by excluding folk from the scope of legal aid but by making courts less expensive to run.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and hope he accepts the figure showing that the spending in England and Wales per capita is 13% higher. I agree with him on a point that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East did not take up: this is not just about how much money is spent, but about how the resources are allocated. Indeed, the question of access to justice is broader than purely the administration or funding of legal aid, so on that point, I accept what he said.
In truth, the legal aid scheme has been the subject of regular change since its inception. Spending has increased substantially, and all Administrations—Labour, the coalition, and Conservative—have sought to exercise control over spending in recent times. I think we all agree that we need to exercise control over legal aid and other precious public services in order to ensure that the finite, precious resources go to those who need them most.
The most recent reforms were part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came in the context of huge financial pressure on the country’s finances. The reforms were founded on the principle of ensuring that legal aid continues to be available for the highest priority cases—for example, when an individual’s life or liberty is at stake, when someone faces the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases, or when children may be taken into care—and in achieving that, delivering better value for money for taxpayers by reducing the cost of the scheme and discouraging unnecessary litigation. Again, although this has not been mentioned today, in some cases—not all—going to court is not the right thing to do, and I will touch on that if I have time later.
I appreciate that the changes in LASPO were contentious. They were subjected to a significant amount of rigorous scrutiny at the time, as Andy Slaughter said. They were debated extensively and amendments were made before the legislation was approved by Parliament. It has been several years since the implementation of those landmark reforms, so it is absolutely right to take stock. That is why we recently laid before the House a detailed, post-legislative memorandum summarising how LASPO was implemented and making a preliminary assessment of its impact. In addition, my predecessors made a commitment to the House to conduct a detailed post-implementation review of the changes to establish to what degree the reforms had achieved their objectives. It is right that we are now fulfilling that pledge.
As hon. Members have acknowledged, that appraisal will cover each issue that has been subject to a previous commitment by Ministers in this House. The Lord Chancellor recently announced the start of the process. That will be led by officials, but I am keen to listen to interested parties, including hon. Members from across the House. Given the importance of the reforms, it is right that we take time to gather the necessary evidence and views of experts on the impact of the changes.
Ms Buck asked me about the detail of the review. I will write to stakeholders shortly to invite them to participate in a series of expert panels to consider and sift through relevant evidence to inform our review, which will be comprehensive. I want to ensure that we get the review right. Of course, I will not pre-empt or prejudice the outcome of the review—I am sure she expected me to say that—but we will publish our findings by the summer recess. One or two hon. Members asked about that.
We must acknowledge that the financial pressures in which the LASPO reforms were introduced remain with us today. The proportion of departmental spend on legal aid remains broadly the same today as it was prior to 2010. We in the Government have the responsibility to ensure that taxpayers get the best value for money, as well as deal with the challenges and fixing the problems of the legal aid system as and when they arise.
That is why I recently announced our changes to the fee scheme for criminal litigators in the Crown court. Defence solicitors do incredibly valuable work and we want to remunerate them fairly for it, but since 2013-14 there has been a rise of more than £30 million in the annual spend on that work. That is primarily attributable to a costs judge ruling that changed what we were paying for beyond the initial policy intention. We do not accept that that reflects an increase in the work done by defence solicitors and do not think that the rise reflects value for money for taxpayers, so it is right that we acted to address that.
We have targeted the action to the 2% of Crown court cases—the most expensive cases—in which the problem was identified. Effectively, the change involves a shift in policy so that more remuneration is for work that is actually done and not just for the amount of paperwork that is produced in court. It is absolutely right that solicitors are properly paid for work that is reasonably done through the scheme. At the same time, as the quid pro quo for putting the proper reforms in place to ensure that the precious, finite resources go to those with the greatest need, we announced our intention not to pursue the suspended 8.75% fee cut, which would have affected all solicitors. Those two parts of the jigsaw will make sure that we get this right. As I mentioned, this is not just about the money that goes in, but about ensuring that we get the best use out of it.
The hon. Member for Westminster North raised the issue of domestic violence, as did the shadow justice Minister, Gloria De Piero. Domestic violence is absolutely abhorrent; it appals every one of us in this place, I am sure, and it is an absolute priority for this Government. We are completely clear that genuine victims of domestic violence and abuse must have access to the help that they need, including access to legal aid. That is why we retained legal aid for protective injunctions. Legal aid was granted in more than 12,000 protective injunction cases last year. In addition, in cases involving child arrangements and financial matters, funding is available for those who will be disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, we are considering the findings of the further internal review of the evidence requirements. I will make an announcement on that shortly, which I am confident—or at least, I hope—will receive support from all parts of the House. She also asked who would be consulted. That is of the greatest importance and we are working very hard to get this into the right kind of shape, engaging Rights of Women, Resolution, Women’s Aid and the Law Society, so that we can be confident that we are doing everything we can to protect and support genuine victims.
Although it is right to ensure that those who are most in need of legal aid are able to access it, we should acknowledge that the courts are not going to be the right solution in non-domestic violence cases in other areas. I am thinking particularly of some family law disputes, which the hon. Lady mentioned. In many family law cases, the challenge is to see them not go to court. I accept the point about mediation not being as successful as we had hoped, but the answer is to renew and revive the efforts to achieve greater use of alternative dispute resolution in some cases. That is not just because of the financial implications, but because of the trauma of going to court—not for lawyers, but for the many people affected by such cases. I think that needs to be emphasised.
We need to do more to promote alternative dispute resolution, so we have protected legal help in many cases. Last year, we spent £100 million on early legal advice and assistance in civil and family cases. In other areas, we have introduced a telephone helpline to provide legal advice in certain categories of case to allow individuals to access advice quickly and easily. Last year, there were more than 20,000 instances of advice being obtained usefully and helpfully through that system. We have also developed a user-friendly digital tool—as the world becomes more digital, it is right that the justice system strives to catch up—to make it clear to people when legal aid is available to them.
When an alternative route is more appropriate, people should feel empowered to pursue it without having to find a lawyer at great expense, whether that is to themselves or the taxpayer. For instance, in cases involving separating couples, mediation can be less stressful and quicker than going to court, and it is often far cheaper than using a lawyer. Critically, it can help to reduce conflict after separation and the trauma of that, often on both sides, which in some cases litigation will make worse, not better.
The Government are committed to promoting mediation and its benefits, and legal aid remains available for these cases. In the 12 months to June 2017, a full or partial agreement was reached in 62% of publicly funded cases in which both parties engaged in mediation. Of course, as hon. Members have mentioned, citizens can and do represent themselves in court, in some cases irrespective of whether legal aid is available or whether they are privately funded. Litigants in person are not a new feature of our justice system. People involved in litigation are engaged in a variety of disputes and have a wide range of needs and capabilities. We recognise that for some people, representing themselves in court is purely a matter of choice, but for others it can be very challenging and demanding.
I have not seen that article, but we are constantly looking to ensure that the court system is as amenable as it can be to litigants in person. Contrary to what the shadow Minister suggested, a range of support is available for that; we have ensured that persons without legal representation can get help and support. Since 2015, the Government have invested £5 million of funding to support litigants in person through the litigant in person support strategy, which works with a range of partners across the advice, voluntary and pro bono sectors to provide practical support, whether that is online self-help resources, access to free or affordable legal advice or representation where possible. Personal support units provide trained volunteers who give free and independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal representation in civil and family courts and tribunals. More personal support units have opened in courts to provide direct support and information to litigants in person, and there are now 20 such centres in 16 cities.
I hesitate to say this, but the Minister is being a bit complacent. All the organisations that he names are wholly laudable, but a PSU, for example, does not give legal advice. Pro bono services are excellent but they cannot compensate for the reduction in legal aid. Mediation is important, but there will be some cases in family law that need to go to a contested hearing. We would like to hear from the Minister that the review will look at the actual effects on the ground, and that where there is a deficit, there will be a genuine attempt to address that. Further, we are asking that he looks at the Bach commission report as part of that process.
The hon. Gentleman has made his intervention in his usual powerful way. I gave the assurance he wanted that the review would be comprehensive and I have looked at the Bach commission report. I would love to know where Opposition Members would make allocations of public funding to pay for the estimated £400 million needed to fund those reforms. On our side, we want to ensure that we can allocate legal aid as best we can, but we have to take the cost into account.
The point I was in the middle of making in relation to litigants in person was one that Bambos Charalambous made in his intervention. We have also delivered training to better equip the judiciary to support litigants in person through the court process.
To respond to the points made by Ellie Reeves, my Department is taking steps to improve the situation of bereaved families at inquests. The inquest process is distinct; it can be incredibly traumatic for the bereaved. It is important to help them to understand how their loved ones died, which can be particularly hard so soon after the event. My heart goes out to anyone who goes through that—not just the grief but the fact-finding process, with all the legal and bureaucratic procedures of the inquest system, which must be rather daunting and challenging for a layperson. I agree that early legal advice can be helpful in allowing families to understand the process, which is why we have protected it for inquests within the scope of legal aid. Inquests are supposed to be inquisitorial, and most inquest hearings are conducted without the need for publicly funded representation. However, we recognise that legal representation may be necessary in some circumstances, for which funding is available through the exceptional case funding scheme.
Dame Elish Angiolini’s important report on deaths in custody highlighted that there are issues relating to public participation. I reviewed that report and I take it very seriously, which is why we committed to update the Lord Chancellor’s guidance so it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the families at an inquest following the non-natural death or suicide of a person detained in custody. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring hon. Members. We could debate that important work for much longer, but I will wind up shortly.
As well as looking back over the record of LASPO and some of the previous decisions, it is also crucial to look forward and ensure that access to justice, to which legal aid makes a hugely valuable contribution, is maintained and meets the needs of a modern society. We are investing over £1 billion to transform our courts and tribunals to build on our world-renowned justice system so that it is more sensitive to victims, more modern so that it works more efficiently, swifter and more accessible in the ways that I have described. As part of that, we will digitise our services to make them easier for the public to use, whether or not they are supported by a lawyer. It is essential that we continue our work to ensure that legal aid is made available to the most vulnerable, as part of that wider approach to making access to justice and the justice system fit for the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East again on securing this debate. I welcome the thoughtful contributions on all sides and the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and our plans to take the justice system forward, not back.
Thank you for your excellent chairing of the debate, Mr Robertson. It has been a great privilege to move the motion today and to call on the excellent support of my Labour colleagues, who offered their expertise, insight and personal experience of having served in the legal profession and dealt with these issues at first hand.
Most notably, my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, dealt with the tenaciously, making a series of observations about how it is often the most vulnerable people who are missing out on this opportunity and how early intervention is the key to success. My hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous made the point that the whole premise of the so-called reform of legal aid is wrong-headed because it drives cost into the system. We have heard that every £1 that is cut in the legal system is costing £6 in real terms down the line.
I was also interested in the points made by Stuart C. McDonald, which is nearly my neighbouring constituency. He observed that although the legal system in Scotland is not suffering from the same pernicious pressures on legal aid, it is damning it with faint praise to say that there are not challenges. I hope the review in Scotland, which is welcome, recognises that the Law Society of Scotland has identified problems and that they ought to be addressed honestly and with an open mind. I hope that will happen and that the resourcing needed to support legal aid is upheld.
I observe the lack of Conservative Members in the debate. I do not know whether that is because they are not prepared to come and defend the system or whether they do not care. I will leave that to other hon. Members to judge. Bill Grant made some interesting points, but he also conceded that the cost base premise of reforming legal aid was flawed and that it may well drive cost into the legal system overall, which is unhelpful even by its own standards.
The Minister’s response was also interesting. He asked where the money would come from. Actually, if the system is costing money, surely we should look at it honestly through the review process to see where efficiencies can be made. If the review is to be worth the paper it is written on, I hope the Minister will commit to ensuring that people who have experience of using legal aid are integrated into it and that their views will be part of the process. On the wider efficiency of the court system, we recognise the difference in spending in Scotland per capita. Perhaps there is an opportunity to learn lessons from the efficiency of how the overall courts process works there.
A number of considered observations have been made in the debate and I have learned a lot from taking part in it. I hope we all strive towards an aspiration to remove harm, stress and indignity from society. The legal aid process is a fundamental pillar of achieving that. As a society, I hope we move towards a system in which there is a presumption to give legal aid. There should be a presumption of entitlement to accessing legal aid rather than a presumption that people are not entitled to it; someone should not have to prove their eligibility to the court system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the provision of legal aid.