The long awaited government review of the 2013 legal aid cuts was finally published yesterday. According to the Ministry of Justice, the reforms introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) were to ‘take the legal aid system back to its initial intention – to ensure public funding would remain sustainable by refocusing resources on those who most need it’.
The so called LASPO review has been greeted with a with a mixed response, with the director of INQUEST, Deborah Coles calling it ‘a dishonest response and a betrayal of those who invested in this review in the hope of securing meaningful change’. The family lawyers’ group Resolution branded the proposals ‘no more than a sticking plaster’.
The report acknowledges the need to intervene earlier and catch problems before they escalate. The Ministry of Justice has committed to reinstating access to face-to-face advice in relation to debt, discrimination and special educational needs by removing the mandatory telephone gateway for these areas.
There is also a proposed expansion of the scope of legal aid to include certain immigration matters and further plans for the funding of inquests. The government has rejected the proposal by INQUEST for automatic non-means tested legal aid for families in the aftermath of a state-related death. ‘The MoJ has failed to confront the reality of the uneven playing field faced by bereaved families, and the considered recommendations of all those who have looked at this issue,’ said the group’s chair Deborah Coles.
Meanwhile, a review of criminal legal aid payment schemes has also already been announced witht eh aim of ensuring criminal defence represents a sustainable and attractive career. Further reviews are unlikely to be completed before 2021.
The review promises an investment of up to £5 million for developing technologies and testing new methods of delivering support with the aim of making sure that people can access the right help. An additional £3 million will also be invested to support those representing themselves through the court system. It is claimed that the Action Plan is the first step towards overhauling the legal support system.
Conservative MP Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons justice select committee, said that although there were positives, some of the suggestions for future changes were ‘kicking the can down the road’. He added: ‘These must be swift and focused as the pressures across the whole justice system – and the risk elements of LASPO continue to pose to access to justice – are real and immediate.’ He also argued that the term ‘legal support’ will need clarification urgently, as it ‘suggests a hand-holding approach rather than providing actual legal advice’. A similar sentiment was expressed by shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon who called the review was a ‘missed opportunity’ to restore early legal support.
The Bar Council was ‘disappointed’ that of the five priorities they has identified, few had been engaged with. Richard Atkins QC, chair, said: ‘’Although up to £5m investment has been promised to improve technology for accessing legal advice and £3m over two years to help litigants in person navigate the court system, such monies are but a drop in the ocean given the impact LASPO has had on restricting individuals’ access to justice. We fully understand that the MoJ is constrained by budgetary limits, but this review provides clear evidence that the Treasury must find a way to properly fund the justice system and reverse a decade of cuts.’
Family law group Resolution ‘cautiously welcomed’ parts of the review, such as expand legal aid to cover special guardianship orders, but said the government must go further to committing funds to address some of the major problems caused by the cuts. Jo Edwards, chair of the family law group, said ‘The £8m of funding – across all areas of the law – represents little more than 2% of the £350m of annual cuts to the legal aid budget’.
The Law Centres Network credited the ministry for acknowledging some key problems created by LASPO. However, the group thought it was ‘unfortunate’ that the department ‘only now decides that it needs further research into key elements of legal aid after six years’. Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, LCN’s head of policy, said: ‘In this context, committing a one-off £8m – just 1% of what was lost – to non-legal support, tech development or innovation does precious little to bridge the immediate, yawning justice gap.’
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group welcomed many of the ‘positive’ recommendations but disagreed with the ministry’s conclusion that the network of advice providers is sustainable. It said: ‘Much more needs to be done now to make sure that we have a justice system for the future.’
Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society president, urged the government to ‘give urgent attention to amending the means test thresholds because the current levels are preventing families in poverty from accessing justice’. She also called for review for solicitors’ remuneration rates for civil and criminal work to assess viability and an update for inflation before further sustainability work.
Mind, a mental health charity, criticised the review for seemingly dismissing ‘much of the sector’s evidence of the impact on vulnerable people as anecdotal’. David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said bringing back face-to-face advice would ‘significantly help’ those who have faced discrimination seek justice, and be particularly beneficial for many disabled people and those with limited English language skills.