Justice system ‘routinely failing thousands’ of the most vulnerable Londoners

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Justice system ‘routinely failing thousands’ of the most vulnerable Londoners

This article is from the Justice in a Time of Austerity series

Domestic abuse, homelessness and discrimination were considered an ‘ordinary experience’ or a ‘part of life’, according to a new study of Londoners with lived experience of of personal crisis and crime.

The study No Justice in the capital, published by Revolving Doors Agency earlier this month, drew on a survey of 30 people living in the capital whose lives were characterised by repeat low-level, nonviolent offences, such as theft and minor drug offences, linked to underlying problems such as mental ill health, substance use, homelessness and domestic abuse.

According to the group, research suggests there are at least 7,000 individuals experiencing a combination of such issues across London each year. The research, which drew on in depth interviews and focus groups, estimated that this small population might experience as many  as 50,000 civil legal problems a year and, of that number, three-quarters (37,500) experienced without any legal help.

Some 173 civil legal problems were experienced by the 30 respondents in the last five years and, of that number, legal help was sought in just 34 instances. The most frequently experienced problems were issues relating to family disputes, especially the care of children and housing problems.

The study found that four out of five respondents received no legal support in domestic violence situations and over half of those experiencing housing problems including serious disrepair and unlawful eviction had to fend for themselves.

‘Our new research shows that the justice system is routinely failing thousands of the most vulnerable Londoners,’ commented Christina Marriott, chief executive of Revolving Doors Agency. ‘For example, lack of legal aid to challenge an unfair eviction can lead to homelessness – and we know homelessness can lead people to commit crimes to survive.’

‘Many participants told us they came to accept problems such as domestic abuse, homelessness, discrimination as an ‘ordinary experience’ or a ‘part of life’, rather than legal disputes. In fact, none of the participants in this small study were able to identify issues that constitute a legal problem, unless they had been previously advised by friends, family or support workers to seek advice from a solicitor.’
Revolving Doors

Findings also showed that participants were often unable to define what constituted a legal issue if they had not previously been advised by a support network of key workers, friends or family. Furthermore, with the exception of one participant, contributors were not aware of digital services and stated they were unlikely to use online sources to find legal aid providers.

Respondents were aware of cuts to legal aid and, whilst they could not cite the LASPO legislation, there was a collective awareness that ‘it’s not like what it used to be’. Respondents felt let down by the system and felt that ‘middle-class white people get away with more’. A number of respondents mentioned case of Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford medical student who stabbed her boyfriend and received a suspended sentence.

In most cases that received legal aid (85%), respondents found their legal representative through recommendations from friends and family. ‘This detrimental combination of lack of legal knowledge, social and digital exclusion, rejection for legal support and its contagious deterrent effect were main barriers for people in the revolving door in accessing justice,’ the report found. ‘Participants also suggested that having to deal with such serious problems without any legal aid, put them not only in significant emotional strain but also greater at risk of offending.’