Justice in freefall
LAG ends the year with a new report analysing the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid statistics and other evidence to identify the key trends in the legal aid market since the passage and implementation of LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) which came into effect in April 2013. It’s not exactly a report infused with Christmas cheer – so don’t leave it until Christmas day to have a read. Year after year the Ministry of Justice have been cutting civil legal aid more than they originally intended to, leaving large budget under-spends and even larger advice deserts, whilst at the same time surrounding the system with ever more suffocating and costly bureaucracy.
The report’s main findings are-
*Basic advice cases (known as civil legal help), have dropped by 75% after the implementation of the legal aid cuts in April 2013, and are continuing to fall
*Just over the last year the number of housing cases reduced by 18%, having already halved since 2013; the number of areas with no provision at all is growing
*The telephone gateway established to help people with debt, special educational needs and discrimination cases is failing the public- out of 165,000 calls last year only just over 10% were referred on to specialists for help
*The exceptional funding mechanism has demonstrably failed, with low take up and low numbers of applications (under 10%) granted
*Despite cuts to legal aid of 25% the Legal Aid Agency’s administrative budget has increased to over £100m
*There has been a 25% decline in solicitors firms undertaking civil legal aid work and this is leading to a lack of availability of the legal aid services which remain in scope
*Legal aid and other cuts have had an even greater impact on not for profit providers as these have declined by 50% in ten years
By this stage you might be asking is there anything new or different happening that we can hold onto for the hope of better publicly funded provision for access to justice? Well perhaps. Some time in 2017 the MoJ will commence its long-awaited post-implementation review of the LASPO reforms. There is also a new strategy for the justice system at the MoJ underpinned by the principles that the system should be just, proportionate, accessible, and involving extensive investment in courts reform and modernisation. Both the review and the reform programme are integral to the responsibilities of Sir Oliver Heald MP QC as Minister of State for Justice who has shown far greater willingness to engage and listen than his recent predecessors – so it is essential that the professions and advocacy groups engage constructively with the review.
Our report spells out some key recommendations for next year:-
*Immediate commencement of the LASPO post-implementation review which should be undertaken independently from the Ministry of Justice, looking at whether, and set against three clear criteria for change and improvement in the legal aid system– just, proportionate, and accessible
*The existing under-spend in the civil legal aid from the past three years should be re-invested in an innovation and early intervention fund which could be distributed on the basis of grant funding bids (for example for second tier specialist support, online tools, and public legal education projects).
*The Ministry of Justice should set a target for reducing spend on bureaucracy and re-investing this in frontline services and contracts; achievable by greater discretion and delegation of powers and decision-making.
*Immediate action should to address the low approval rates for exceptional funding through improving the guidance to decision-makers and reducing bureaucracy.
*As a response to low take-up of civil legal aid, the MoJ needs to start a public information campaign about what problems legal aid is available for, how to seek help; this could be linked to a wider public legal education initiatives.
*Immediate action should be taken over the emergence of housing legal aid deserts, by making arrangements to ensure there is contracted provision in all procurement areas and introducing greater flexibility within housing legal aid work to enable providers to undertake preventative work.
The Guardian carried a story on the report in its edition on Monday 19th December.
Note – Since completing our report, the figures for the 3rd Quarter of 2016 have just been published showing a further decline in civil legal help over the current year. Workload in housing for example is down 9% from the same quarter last year, immigration works down 22% and help for discrimination cases is down by about a third.