Cuts to legal aid spending over the past four years have denied justice to the most vulnerable in society, hit the public purse and damaged the foundation of our justice system, the Law Society of England and Wales said as it published its reckoning of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO): Access denied? LASPO four years on.
Law Society president Robert Bourns today said: “Four years ago, LASPO was implemented and hundreds of thousands of people who were eligible for legal aid on one day (31 March 2013) became ineligible the very next."
LASPO introduced changes to the scope, eligibility and the rates paid for work, and resulted in significant cuts to legal aid spending.
Four years on, the Law Society has conducted a review of the legal aid changes in LASPO. The report focuses on the impact of the civil legal aid cuts on the ability of citizens to defend and enforce their legal rights.
The report also suggests that legal aid cuts have actually increased pressure on wider public services, due to growing numbers of people representing themselves in court, and escalating legal problems due to the removal of legal aid for early advice.
Robert Bourns explained: "While successive governments have repeatedly cut back the legal aid budget, the reforms set out in LASPO 2012 made the most significant changes to legal aid since its introduction, denying legal aid to very many who need it."
LASPO Part 1 implemented significant cuts to the scope of civil legal aid, with the aim of cutting legal aid expenditure by £450 million. The demographics of legal aid recipients prior to 2012 clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society.
"Access to justice should be treated as an essential public service - equal to healthcare or education.
"Legal aid is a lifeline for the vulnerable. Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers money.
"Failure to get early expert legal advice can result in problems escalating dramatically, when they could have been nipped in the bud. The cuts have led to many people facing court unrepresented, in cases where lawyers would have resolved the issues without involving the court, via mediation or negotiation."
Robert Bourns added: "Removing lawyers from the process is a false economy. The cuts in legal aid for family law have put people off seeking advice and support from solicitors who can explain where they stand and what their rights are."
"Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties. A properly funded legal aid system is an essential public service that ensures equal access to justice for all.”
The Law Society's report also points out that some housing cases are no longer eligible for legal aid, adding "people now have a stark choice: to pay for their own legal advice, represent themselves, or be excluded from the justice system altogether”.
Robert Bourns added: "There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.
"Legal advice and access to justice are fundamentals for a dynamic society - one in which the powerful are held to account and the public interest promoted to protect the weak. A cohesive society in which we all have a stake."
He added: "The previous government was about to commence a comprehensive post-implementation review of both parts 1 and 2 of LASPO before the election was called. We hope that the new government will be able to commit to continue with this.
"Our own review is intended as a contribution to the debate on access to justice and how it can be preserved. It highlights the fundamental question of how to restore and protect access to justice for everyone in the 21st century regardless of their economic circumstances."
Notes to editors:
The Law Society review gives an overview of the Law Society’s key areas of concern regarding the impact of changes to civil legal aid, introduced in part 1 of the act.
The review focuses on four key consequences of the legislation:
1. Legal aid is no longer available for those who need it
2. Those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access it
4. LASPO has had a wider and detrimental impact on the state and society
3. Wide gaps in provision are not being addressed
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