New Report On Legal Aid Cuts Reveals “Grave Concerns” For Enforcement Of Human Rights

By Saxon Norgard, Associate Editor 19 Jul 2018

A report published today by the Joint Committee on Human Rights has concluded that cuts to legal aid have made the enforcement of human rights “simply unaffordable” for many people.

The Committee, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, has recommended an “urgent review” of the system of legal advice and support for people facing breaches of their human rights.

But First, What Is Legal Aid?

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Legal aid is a government program through which those who are in need of a lawyer but unable to afford one can receive public funds to cover their legal costs.

Previously, legal aid was available for nearly all legal disputes. However this changed with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which introduced cost-cutting reforms designed to save around £350 million per year.

Now large swathes of the law are no longer covered by legal aid, and in areas where it is still available the test for eligibility has been made considerably stricter. Some of the key areas which are no longer funded include:

  • Family law,
  • Clinical negligence,
  • Employment and immigration law,
  • Debt and housing, and
  • Welfare benefits.

“Legal aid deserts”

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The Joint Committee’s report warns that large parts of the UK have become “legal aid deserts” – geographical areas where legal aid advice is unavailable in certain areas of law. In her evidence to the Committee, Rachel Logan of Amnesty International UK gave the following examples:

Take Devon and Cornwall. There is one small legal aid provider in Plymouth, as far as I understand it, for immigration law. It therefore deals with anyone in the entire region who has problems arising within that sphere, and it is an area of dispersal; it is an area where people are sent specifically who are trying to regularise their status or who have immigration questions. Similarly, in Oxford, as far as I understand it, there is only one firm, providing private family law.

Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK

This, the report finds, has been caused by the provision of legal aid services no longer being economically viable for legal practitioners, as well as excessive bureaucracy in the system. So, even in cases where legal aid is available, a person in need may still find it impossible to obtain the advice they require.

The Impact of LASPO on Human Rights

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Access to justice is of fundamental importance to the protection of human rights, as it ensures that our rights are not simply theoretical but can be enforced.

It is also a necessary component of the ‘rule of law’; the notion that all people should be subject to the law in equal measure.

The Committee’s report finds that the reforms introduced by LASPO have made access to justice more difficult for many and, as a result, disrupted the enforcement of human rights in the UK.

For example, the report highlights the effect on migrant children and their families, who can no longer obtain legal aid to regularise their status in the UK:

In the current legal framework, which we have in part because of the hostile environment, if you do not have papers, in short, you can find yourself destitute, homeless, unable to access healthcare and not allowed to work. A whole range of other human rights implications stem from the immigration side of things.

Kamena Dorling, Coram Children’s Legal Centre

Where To Next?

The report makes several recommendations, including:

  • Widening the financial eligibility criteria to make legal aid available to a wider proportion of the population.
  • Improving access to Exceptional Case Funding, particularly where human rights cases are involved.
  • Extending legal aid to cover immigration cases engaging Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention (which protects our right to a private and family life).

These recommendations, it is hoped, will be considered as part of the Government’s ongoing review of legal aid which began earlier this year.

Featured image credit: FlickR

About The Author

Saxon Norgard Associate Editor

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.