Act now on legal aid ‘before its too late’, says YLAL

Act now on legal aid ‘before its too late’, says YLAL

'Justice for all': Justice alliance demo protesting the legal aid cuts

The 2013 legal aid cuts have been ‘hugely detrimental’ to the justice system and access to justice, argue the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) in their recent response to the government’s postimplementation review of the controversial legislation. You can read it here.

YLAL calls on the government to take urgent steps to address problems caused by the 2013 swingeing cuts ‘before it is too late’. 

YLAL, which was formed in 2005 and speaks for over 3,500 students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers all committed to practising in legal aid, is uniquely placed to comment on the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

Many of the junior lawyers which make up its membership know no life other than that post-LASPO, and attest to the huge pressures that the legal aid system is under and the impact this has upon those seeking legal advice and representation, as well as the legal profession which provide it. 

YLAL’s 52-page response, produced by 16 of the group’s members, considers the legal aid system pre and post-LASPO and focuses on a number of key areas (means testing for legal aid and financial eligibility, changes to the scope of legal aid and early legal advice, Exceptional Case Funding, and the use of technology) to build a comprehensive picture of LASPO’s impact upon access to justice. Each section concludes with a set of tangible recommendations for improving the situation as it currently stands. 

Drawing on over 20 reports which have been published by the likes of Amnesty International, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Law Society, and the National Audit Office in the five years since LASPO was enacted, the response paints a picture of legal system struggling to meet the needs of individuals seeking to enforce their rights, particularly in light of access to legal advice at the early stage of cases being reduced, and of large areas of law being taken out of the scope of legal aid. 

While the findings of the Bach Commission in its 2017 report on access to justice (‘The Right to Justice’) might be familiar, other reports will be less well known, such as the joint publication between the City solicitors Hogan Lovells and the All Party Parliamentary Group on pro bono (Mind the Gap: An Assessment of Unmet Legal Need in London), which followed a survey of MP surgeries and found that 89% of appointments related to issues of legal concern. It is noteworthy that this report cites research by YLAL, demonstrating the growing influence that YLAL is having in the sector. 

Alongside the literature review, the response also draws on evidence from YLAL members, including responses to surveys and qualitative feedback by members through contributions at YLAL meetings. YLAL’s membership comprises new entrants and junior lawyers, and increasing social mobility and diversity within the legal aid sector is one of the group’s core objectives.

YLAL asks that the contents of its 2018 report Social Mobility in a Time of Austerity be considered alongside its submission to the consultation in the context of the detrimental impact LASPO has had upon social mobility and access to the profession, arguing that if the recommendations made within both are implemented, ‘access to justice and social mobility can be significantly improved, and the resulting diversity… will encourage the profession to flourish and better serve the vast unmet public need for legal advice and representation.’ 

While it is undeniable that one of LASPO’s aims – substantial savings to the cost of the scheme – has been achieved, YLAL make plain that the overall impact of the legislation has been a hugely detrimental one to the justice system in England and Wales.

It is of course hoped that YLAL’s response to this important consultation is given due consideration, and that YLAL can work with the Ministry of Justice to improve access to justice, including through access to the profession – to ensure that future generations of legal aid lawyers are able to fulfil their vital public service.