Published: 28th September 2017
A recently released report, backed by the Labour party, suggests that an extra £400m should be spent per year to provide UK residents with access to better legal aid. The report also outlines details that would see a generous legal aid system providing the UK with a right to justice through legal enforcement.The report, which consists of a review led by former Justice Minister Lord Bach, suggests alternative provisions for equality and condemns policies that have led to unfair cuts to legal aid.
The Introduction of LASPO
Following approval from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the report was launched prior to the Labour party conference and focused onparticular aspects of the previous coalition government’s time in charge. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 was introduced by the coalition government and had a significantly negative impact upon the legal aid available within the UK.
The eligibility for and scope of legal aid became restricted as a result of the LASPO Act, leading the Joint Committee on Human Rights to express their disappointment that many people – and children in particular – had been put at a disadvantage ‘during the current period of austerity’ following its introduction. Bach warns within his report that the ‘legal aid system is creaking at the seams, and practice as a legal aid lawyer is becoming increasingly unsustainable.’
What does the Legal Aid Report suggest?
Keeping in mind that legal aid spending was £950m less in 2016 than in 2010; the Bach report states that ‘[w]hen the government first introduced LASPO it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices. The Fabian Society estimates the costs of the proposals in this report will initially total less than this under spend, at an estimated cost of around £400m per year.’
In the report, the extra costs that are proposed are clearly set out, with an extra £120m set for increasing the scope to provide early legal assistance, a £110m provision to cater to better eligibility for legal help, £60m for increasing the scope of civil legal representation and a national fund of £50m for legal advice services. With such spending provisions, it is also extremely important to remember that the system can become much more cost effective in the long term, particularly with early legal advice preventing a proportion of cases reaching the courts.
The report also outlines the implementation of a ‘more generous assessment scheme’ designed specifically for civil legal aid, seeing all benefit recipients qualify for the legal aid and all child related cases covered by the legal aid qualification scope.
A big recommendation from within the report comes in the form of equitable funding, as called for by the chief coroner in 2016. This would include providing legal aid for the representation of families of the deceased, ‘where the state is funding one or more of the other parties’. Further suggestions within the report include removing capital assessments as part of determining the eligibility for legal aid, and returning early legal aid entitlement to all areas affected by LASPO. The areas most impacted by LASPO include employment status, financial debt, family law, child specific cases, welfare benefits, housing and immigration.
UK Legal Aid Funding
Legal aid was initially introduced by the Labour government in 1949, alongside the NHS and welfare reforms. Since that time, legal aid has not received as much recognition as perhaps it should have, especially when compared to the NHS, mainly because most people do not expect to attend court or require legal aid.
Government statistics highlight that legal aid spending has dramatically decreased since 2005/06, from £2.6bn to the £1.5bn that was spent in 2016, with a significant fall in spending following the introduction of LASPO in 2013.
The labour-backed report outlines a particular defect with LASPO, whereby the case funding scheme, that was initiated to mitigate cuts, systematically failed. As stated in the report: ‘The government suggested around 847 children and 4,888 young adults would be granted exceptional funding each year, yet between October 2013 and June 2015 only eight children and 28 young adults were granted legal aid under the scheme.’
Lord Bach, the chair of the Access to Justice Foundation, stated: ‘No person should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it. We need a new act which defends and extends the right to justice, and we need a new body tasked with implementing it. The government must take urgent action to address the crisis in our justice system. This means broadening the scope of legal aid, reforming eligibility requirements and taking action to improve the public’s understanding of the law.’
Responses to the Report
Despite only being applicable to England and Wales, and though not an official policy of the Labour party, the report has been welcomed by Richard Burgon MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary of the Labour party.
It is also known that the Ministry of Justice is set to review the impact of LASPO, with a report expected in early 2018, following extensive criticism by senior judges, parliamentary select committees and the National Audit Office.
In a response to the report released by Lord Bach, Justice Minister Dominic Raab said that the ministry had spent £1.6bn on legal aid in 2016, which is a quarter of the ministries’ total budget. He went on to say ‘We will continue to focus legal aid on those who most need help, recognising the cost of this support is met by the taxpayer, even as Labour produces yet more unfunded proposals.’
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