Future of Legal Aid

Part of Health and Social Care Committee – in Westminster Hall at 4:02 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:02 pm, 1st November 2018

The point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard. Changes were made to LASPO to ensure that legal aid was available where people were at their most vulnerable. On clinical negligence, we should make clear that legal aid is available for compensation claims in respect of neurological trauma caused to children early in life due to negligence by medical professionals. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith recognised, by putting such things in the scope of legal aid, we are protecting the most vulnerable.

Debbie Abrahams mentioned social security claims. We are introducing significant technological changes—things such as digitisation and better communication with judges using technology—to make the tribunal system much more accessible.

Many Members, including Teresa Pearce, mentioned family law. LASPO rightly removed most private family matters from the scope of legal aid, but legal aid remains available for mediation in certain family disputes where parties meet the eligibility criteria. Since November 2014, legal aid has covered the costs of the mediation information and assessment meeting and the first mediation session for both parties, even if just one is eligible for legal aid.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned exceptional case funding. Let me update the figures he gave. The number of people making applications and the number of applications granted have both increased. Some 746 applications for ECF were received in the first quarter of 2018, of which 59%—390—were granted. That is the highest proportion and number of grants since the scheme began.

The hon. Gentleman and Gloria De Piero both mentioned domestic violence. Legal aid is available to those seeking protection from an abuser in domestic abuse cases, and it was granted in more than 13,000 cases last year.

Liz Saville Roberts raised important points about Wales. She has asked parliamentary questions on a number of matters, and I am happy to meet her to discuss the issues she has raised.

I was interested to hear the points by Bambos Charalambous about children. I was pleased to meet him earlier this week to discuss some of those issues.

It is important to set out where legal aid is available, but we recognise the impact of the changes made by the coalition Government in 2012, which many Members rightly highlighted. As all hon. Members know, my Department is looking at the impacts of LASPO. The hon. Member for Hammersmith said he is looking for positive news, but as a former shadow Justice Minister, he knows as well as I do that it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the review. We will respond at the end of the year.

I am happy to set out the process, which I outlined at the APPG on legal aid earlier this week. The evidence-gathering process has been comprehensive. My officials met more than 80 individuals and organisations from across the justice system to gather evidence, and they held two rounds of consultative group meetings with organisations, representatives and academics from across the justice system. At a third round of meetings, we will examine opportunities to consider further legal support. Officials will meet the Family Justice Council to discuss its concerns and recommendations in further detail, and are due to have a second meeting with the Civil Justice Council to explore its recommendations further.

I have held a number of instructive roundtables with those who have used our justice system, both with and without legal aid. I have met a number of Members of the House of Lords—last week I sat down with Lord Bach and other members of his commission on access to justice, and I have met Lord Low. Last week, I met the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I have also met many parliamentarians, and individuals from the advice and third sector who work with the most vulnerable in our society.

Alongside those meetings, much material has been submitted throughout the review, and we are considering that. It is clear that there are many issues to consider, from the stage at which advice is sought to types of provider and methods of provision. Many experts highlighted the value that technology can bring to individuals to navigate their rights in the court process.

We now use technology in every part of our lives, and justice should not be immune from that advancement. That is why, through the courts reform programme, the Government are investing £1 billion in updating our justice system for the 21st century. That programme is helping people to access court better, at the same time as changing outdated back-office systems. People can now apply for divorce online, we are trialling online applications for probate, and people can be updated about their social security claim through their mobile phone. Our reforms help vulnerable witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence so they do not need to see their attacker in court, and they enable those who find it difficult to travel due to disability or age to take part in proceedings by video link. That investment will transform how people experience the justice system with digital services, making justice more accessible and straightforward as well as using taxpayers’ money wisely.