Future of Legal Aid

Part of Health and Social Care Committee – in Westminster Hall at 1:45 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 1:45 pm, 1st November 2018

That is particularly important to my hon. Friend and he makes a very good point. We have been briefed by both Mencap and Mind on today’s debate. It will not surprise anyone that Mind said that people with mental health problems are twice as likely as members of the general population to experience legal problems and four times as likely to experience complex legal problems—in other words, problems that extend across a number of different disciplines. As was predicted, those are the people who are worst affected.

Even as the Bill was being published, alarm bells were being rung, and not only by Opposition Members. I had the pleasure of leading for the Opposition in Committee on LASPO. We heard not only from experts and users of the system but from the Government officials. The impact assessments that accompanied the Bill predicted that people with protected characteristics would be disproportionately affected by the cuts.

The official MOJ line was:

“The wide-ranging availability of legal aid can lead people to assume legal action is their only option, even where early practical advice could be of more help to them and avoid them needing a lawyer at all.”

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the money available was not enough and that we were losing precisely the swift and practical advice offered by CABs and advice and law centres. She added that Citizens Advice research suggested that every £1 spent on early advice saved around £9 later, partly by avoiding unnecessary and expensive tribunal hearings.

Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of Scope, said:

“To cut legal aid at a time of unprecedented changes to welfare support would mean disabled people who fall foul of poor decision-making, red tape or administrative error being pushed even further into poverty as they struggle to manoeuvre the complicated legal system without the expert support they need…This could result in a ticking timebomb of poorly prepared and lengthy tribunals and appeals, choking the courts and not saving money, but actually costing the government far more in the long term.”

The Government were warned. Did the predictions of doom come to pass? We know that they did. In fact, LASPO has cut far more deeply than had been billed. The stated aim was to reduce the legal aid budget by £350 million, but last year spending was £950 million less than in 2010, at £1.6 billion, as against £2.55 billion in 2010-11, with similar percentage falls in both civil and criminal legal aid.

While waiting for the Government review of LASPO—it was promised for between three and five years post-enactment, but we are now nearer six years post-enactment—we have not been short of expert opinion on its effects. Reports by the Justice Committee, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Bach Commission and the Low Commission have been consistent in highlighting the serious failings of LASPO. In 2017, the Bach Commission found that

“the justice system is in crisis. Most immediately, people are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been dramatically reduced and eligibility requirements made excessively stringent. But problems extend very widely through the justice system, from insufficient public legal education and a shrinking information and advice sector to unwieldy and creaking bureaucratic systems and uncertainty about the future viability of the practice of legal aid practitioners.”

In 2015, the Justice Committee published its verdict:

“Our overall conclusion was that, while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms. Since the reforms came into effect there has been an underspend in the civil legal aid budget because the Ministry has not ensured that many people who are eligible for legal aid are able to access it. A lack of public information about the extent and availability of legal aid post-reforms, including about the Civil Legal Advice telephone gateway for debt advice, contributed to this and we recommend the Ministry take prompt steps to redress this.”

Advice officers around the UK began looking for alternative sources of funding so that they could continue working with clients who would soon find themselves ineligible for legal aid. However, with local authority budgets cut, few sources of funding were available. Many agencies closed and private firms found that it was no longer economic to undertake legal aid work. As we have heard, whole areas of help have been removed from scope, leaving millions unable to get advice or representation. There has been an almost complete collapse in early legal advice. That means that cases now escalate and are resolved only after becoming much more complex, traumatic and expensive, if they are resolved at all.

As my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce said, the Government argued that removing legal aid for most private family law matters would increase the uptake of mediation so families could resolve their problems outside court. They predicted an increase of 9,000 mediation assessments and 10,000 mediation cases for the year 2013-14. Instead, there was a decrease of 17,246 mediation assessments in the year after the reforms, and the number of mediation cases fell by 5,177 in the same period. One reason for that was the withdrawal of firms from those areas of law, leaving no one to signpost litigants to mediation.

The removal of legal aid from most areas of family law has had a disproportionate effect on women. In a survey carried out by Rights of Women and Women’s Aid, 53% of respondents took no action in relation to their case because they could not apply for legal aid. It is becoming so difficult for victims of domestic violence to obtain legal aid that last year, the Government were forced urgently to review the criteria for legal aid in such cases. Time limits preventing victims of domestic violence from obtaining legal aid for court hearings were scrapped and rules were relaxed to accept evidence from victim support organisations. Despite that, there are still concerns that too many women are falling through the cracks and not getting the help they need.

A dramatic increase of litigants in person following LASPO has created a severe strain on the court system which, to quote the retiring Director of Public Prosecutions this week, is already “creaking” under the effects of significant cuts and court closures.