Cuts which hurt – Amnesty International weigh in..
We of course tend to think of Amnesty International in terms of their work on the global stage for human rights, especially reporting on countries with poor penal systems and oppressed civil societies. But their report on the impact of drastic legal aid changes in England and Wales illustrates how the rights of vulnerable groups can be trampled on where effective routes for access to justice are removed by “cuts which hurt.” Access to justice is in Amnesty’s words “an essential prerequisite for the protection and promotion of all human rights” noting that UK Government policy is moving in the opposite direction from internationally mandated standards on equality of access to, and equality of arms within, domestic legal systems. Amnesty’s report sets this out well in the context of international human rights conventions and covenants, treaty commitments and UN goals and argues clearly that with the LASPO reforms the Government failed to show “due diligence” to this context.
However, Amnesty’s report is far more that a dry juristic treatise on how international standards need to be realised in a domestic legal context, rather it starts with and focuses on the impact of the cuts on a range of disadvantaged and marginalised groups, namely children and young people, migrants and refugees, and people with specific vulnerabilities which can make accessing legal procedures more difficult, such as those with mental health problems, literacy issues or disabilities. Based on a mix of desk research, field interviews and shadowing of advice agencies as well Personal Support Units in the courts, the report hones in on the way in which the cuts to civil legal aid have particularly serious and disproportionate impact for those disadvantaged groups who already experience the most obstacles in accessing justice, and most need the help of expert legal specialists, in particular
● children and vulnerable young people who should not be expected to navigate complex legal processes alone
● migrants and refugees wrestling with changing immigration rules, as they face potential removal and separation of their family or being left trapped in poverty, excluded from work, education and vulnerable to exploitation by gangmasters
● people with serious vulnerabilities who struggle to effectively advocate for themselves;
For these groups loss of access to civil legal aid, especially for social welfare and family law issues, has meant the loss of early intervention and huge obstacles thrown across their interaction with and pathways through the legal system, leading to more unjust outcomes – as illustrated by abundant case studies that the Amnesty report has picked up, and failed also by the narrow exceptional funding mechanism. The report ends with welcome and useful recommendations to Government which LAG endorses:-
● Immediately review the impact of reforms introduced LASPO) Act 2012 on access to justice and protection of human rights
● better provision of public legal education to ensure people understand and claim their rights
● ensure that children and young people have an entitlement to legal aid, regardless of the legal issue at stake and that children and families without sufficient means should be able to obtain legal advice where litigation is contemplated, and legal representation where a child’s best interests are engaged
● Restore initial legal advice for private family law cases;
● Restore welfare benefits advice funding;
● Restore legal aid to all immigration cases raising arguable human rights concerns
● Facilitate provision of meaningful legal information and effective advice for individuals detained under immigration powers
● Ensure family reunification cases are entitled to legal aid;
● Abandon the residence test
● Overhaul the Exceptional Case Funding system so as to make it more accessible to members, with advice on entitlement and help making an application
● Work with NGOs to ensure that those affected by all forms of domestic violence are able to get legal aid in private family law cases
● Ensure victims of trafficking are able to exercise their right to seek reparations and hold to account those who have exploited them.