Government failing public on civil legal aid
While the government’s climb down on competitive tendering for criminal legal aid might be grabbing the headlines, an invidious attack on the availability of civil legal aid to the public is going unnoticed. Figures from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) obtained by LAG and released today (Monday 9 September) show dramatic shortfalls of up to 77 per cent in the number of civil legal cases. LAG believes this has been caused by a number of factors, including the government’s failure to properly advertise the availability of civil legal aid.
LAG has published the figures in a new policy paper, Civil legal aid – the secret legal service? The paper outlines the decline in the number of civil legal aid cases, despite evidence of an increase in demand for advice in areas of social welfare law such as debt and housing.
Cuts in what is covered by civil legal aid were introduced in April this year, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 came into force. Using the LAA figures, LAG has calculated that in April, May and June, there were shortfalls against the estimated number of cases of 34 per cent in housing, 68 per cent in debt and 77 per cent in discrimination. There was a total of 52 per cent fewer cases than the government had predicted for initial help and advice (known as Legal Help cases) in debt, housing, education and discrimination law.
Carol Storer, the director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, which represents legal aid lawyers, blames the government’s failure in marketing the services. She believes that the information on civil legal aid ‘has been inadequate and in some cases unfortunately misleading’. Housing solicitor Russell Conway believes the news coverage about cuts in legal aid has led many members of the public to believe that civil legal aid is no longer available. He said that ‘some local authorities and social landlords have been peddling the rumour that legal aid for housing cases has been completely abolished. Some of my clients have been pleasantly surprised when I have told them they can still get legal aid for their case’.
In the report LAG details the reductions in the number of civil legal aid cases over the last three years, as well as the low take up of the exceptional cases provisions contained in the LASPO Act. Only a handful of cases have been supported under these regulations despite the LAA estimating that there would be between 5,000-7,000 per year. At the time that the LASPO Bill was being debated in parliament the exceptional cases funding regulations were talked up by ministers as providing a human rights safety net.
LAG believes the dwindling numbers of firms and agencies undertaking legal aid and increased bureaucratic hurdles before legal aid is granted have also contributed to the shortfall in cases. We fear that by either accident or design, the government seems to be presiding over a secret legal service. The fear is that if nothing is done to increase the take up of civil legal aid, the remaining services will wither away as lack of use will be used to justify their loss. We are calling on the government to better inform the public about the availability of civil legal aid through the internet and other channels. We also believe that the government should urgently review the exceptional cases rules as these are not working.