Post LASPO decline in civil legal aid continues
Since the implementation of the LASPO* cuts in April 2013 the number of civil legal aid cases has reduced by two-thirds. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last month show a continuing decline in the take-up of civil legal aid. LAG believes that the government is failing to ensure that legal services are available for people still eligible to receive help.
According to the report, published on the MoJ website, there was a 12% decrease in housing cases in Oct-Dec 2016 compared to the same quarter in the previous year. There was also a 24% reduction in asylum cases and a 5% reduction in mental health cases. None family law cases like these account for just over 20% of the total expenditure on civil legal aid. Overall spending on civil legal aid for 2016 was £676m compared to £709m in 2015.
Last year the Law Society (LS) published evidence on the lack of availability of legal aid for housing advice in many areas of England and Wales. The LS found that in three areas- Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk- there were no housing providers and in many other places there were too few to meet the potential demand for advice on homelessness, serious disrepair and harassment.
In its report published in 2014 the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that that there were 53 local authority areas in which fewer than 50 face to face civil legal aid cases had been started and in 14 other areas none at all had commenced. The PAC recommended that the government should establish mechanisms to identify shortfalls in the provision of legal aid to ensure that those people eligible for help could receive it. These latest statistics demonstrate that this has just not happened.
For family law, which is the biggest area of civil legal aid spending, the picture is more mixed. While there were 15% fewer cases for Oct-Dec 2016 compared to the same quarter in 2015, the number of more complex and expensive civil representation cases has grown by 7%. According to the MoJ’s analysis this increase has been driven by a growth in public law family cases.
There is some good news in the report on the take-up of Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) as this has increased. This system was introduced by LASPO as a safety net for civil cases which are not in scope, but would breach human rights law if legal aid for advice and/or representation were not available.
Post LASPO the number of ECF cases was much lower than the 5-7,000 originally estimated by the MoJ, but the numbers of cases are growing. Compared to the same quarter in 2015, in Oct-Dec last year there was a rise of 43% in applications. A total of 441 were received of which 57% were immigration matters. This increase was partly driven by the case of Gudanavicience and others in which the Court of Appeal decided that the government had set the threshold too high to qualify for ECF in many immigration cases.
While the increase in ECF cases is a cause for some modest celebration, LAG’s main concern with these latest figures is the continuing drop in the number of cases. Our report, Justice in Freefall, published last year, highlighted the reductions in civil legal aid post-LASPO. The recent statistics from the MoJ confirm an ongoing spiralling decline in civil legal aid which could be terminal unless ministers take urgent action to address the problem.
*Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Act