Last week the government published its long-awaited review into much criticised changes to our legal aid system. It is accompanied by a Legal Support Action Plan that the Law Society says represents a step towards fixing our ailing system, while others have expressed dismay at the uphill battle many still face to access justice.
Where Are We And How Did We Get Here?
Man drafting legal advice. Photo Credit: Unsplash
As we’ve previously reported, the government passed legislation in 2012 with a view to cutting what was an annual £2.1 billion cost of legal aid.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) attracted ferocious opposition from legal professional bodies and justice campaigners who said it had limited access to justice, trespassed on our right to a fair trial, and increased costs for the taxpayer as a result of other public services being put under increasing pressure.
One judge this week summed up the concerns of many when he described “gaping holes in the fabric of legal aid”.
Having heard from over 100 legal bodies – including practitioners, lawyers and academics – the government has now published a 500 page review of the effect of LASPO which claims success in saving costs (the annual spend is now £1.6 billion) but also acknowledges ways in which access to justice has been limited as a result.
Gaping holes in the fabric of legal aid.
Justice Williams commenting in the case of R ( A Child : Appeal : Termination of Contact)
In light of its findings, the government has also published a Legal Support Action Plan, entitled ‘Legal Support: The Way Ahead’. The plan commits the government to making changes which the Law Society hopes will “make it easier for ordinary people to qualify for legal aid and access essential help and support”.
Plugging The Gap Or A Drop In The Ocean?
Changes are designed to make it easier for claimants to access support but some argue they are a mere ‘drop in the ocean’. Photo Credit: Unsplash
The government has pledged a total of £8 million in funding to help litigants in person (those who go to court without legal representation) navigate the court process.
It has also backed “innovative forms” of legal support focussing on better use of technology to help people access legal advice and early intervention strategies in the hope that people can avoid the costs and stresses of going to court.
Immediate steps will also be taken to alleviate the burden on particularly vulnerable groups, including migrant children, and pilot schemes will be put in place this year to test how new technologies and a more holistic approach to providing legal aid services will work.
While the Law Society has welcomed these improvements, it has also expressed concern that much more needs to be done.
Critically, it wants a change to means-tested thresholds which it says are preventing families in poverty from accessing justice. Steps must also be taken, it says, to ensure that lawyers are adequately paid for their work and to ensure the legal aid system as a whole is sustainable.
Such monies are a drop in the ocean.
Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar Council
The professional body representing barristers, the Bar Council, has gone further. It shares the Law Society’s concerns but not its optimism, branding the review a disappointment and a wasted opportunity.
Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said “such monies are a drop in the ocean” and that a lot more needs to be done to ease “the impact of LASPO on vulnerable individuals seeking justice”.
Legal Aid A Work In Progress: Where To Next?
Which direction now? Photo Credit: Javier Allegue Barros/Unsplash
In its action plan, the government recognises that more work needs to be done to improve the legal aid system.
The Law Society is buoyed by its commitment to improvement and hopes to collaborate on further planned reviews into the way in which criminal and civil legal aid works. These reviews are due to be completed in 2020.
So this is not the end of the story. Whether or not the Law Society’s optimism is justified remains to be seen, but what is certain is that access to justice is a work in progress, the outcome of which will affect us all.