Affordable access to legal advice is a basic right for everyone. Justice is at risk when expertise is needed to deal with complex or contested legal issues and the person does not have the resources to pay for legal representation.
There are significant benefits to getting professional legal advice, but recent changes have made it more difficult to get legal help. We are submitting our recommended solutions to the government, which include:
- improving the way the courts work
- solicitors working differently
- a proper, supported role for free legal advice
- appropriate funding for affordable justice
- incentivising public bodies to make better decisions
Download Affordable Legal Services for Everyone: The Law Society's perspective (PDF 1mb)
Download the full submitted Affordable legal services review (PDF 92kb)
Download the Impact of the LASPO Act 2012 infographic (PDF 1.7mb)
Benefits of getting legal advice early
Solicitors provide a high level of service and advice that is backed up by:
- lengthy training
- strict regulation
- independent complaints process
- compulsory professional indemnity insurance
- a compensation fund administered by the Law Society
These safeguards provide crucial protection for the public and an assurance that the advice they get will be of a high quality. Any professional service comes at a cost, but it is a cost that is worthwhile in the long-term.
The costs of using a solicitor to resolve problems early are low compared with the knock-on costs that the taxpayer picks up when problems escalate. For example, early advice to help people deal with debt or benefits problems is likely to reduce later problems of homelessness or crime. This can avoid additional costs for the NHS, local authorities and other agencies.
Reductions in legal aid and increases in court and tribunal fees have both impacted on affordable access to justice.
Access to justice: the impact of legal aid cuts and court fee increases
The government's own analysis of the impact of cuts to legal aid shows they have resulted in people having significantly less access to legal advice:
- 600,000 people have lost access to civil legal aid.
- Law centres, which use volunteers to provide legal advice, have shut down.
- There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people having to represent themselves in court.
- Disputes are taking longer to resolve, adding to the costs of publicly-funded courts.
- Lower value and complex cases are financially unsustainable for many law firms – further reducing the availability of legal advice to the public.
- The small claims limit has been raised to £10,000 (except for personal injury), so legal costs cannot be recovered, even if their case is successful – people and small businesses are often unable to obtain good quality legal advice on claims which represent significant sums of money to them.
- Court and tribunal fee increases introduced in the employment tribunals and in the civil courts impose a financial barrier – access to tribunals and courts are now unaffordable for many people.
What can be done
The Law Society recommends that recent changes to the legal system are reconsidered and amended where those changes have caused harm.
We also recommend the development of a joined up approach to civil access to justice by the next government through a variety of channels in addition to legal aid. This should include:
Improving the way the courts work
A review of the way courts work and increased use of technology to make services more efficient.
Read our recommendations on improving court efficiency (PDF 652kb)
Solicitors working differently
The legal profession has proved very flexible in developing business models for reducing costs while providing quality legal services.
Read our recommendations on business models and unbundling (PDF 647b)
Read our practice note on unbundling
A proper, supported role for free legal advice
Pro bono is free legal work carried out by lawyers on a voluntary basis. A significant number of solicitors undertake pro bono work, but this is generally only possible where a solicitor is part of a thriving legal business. Pro bono cannot cover the gap left behind by the legal aid cuts.
Read our recommendations for supported pro bono work (PDF 654kb)
Appropriate funding for affordable justice
In recent years a number of funding models have been developed to enable people to manage the cost of litigation and assert their rights. Examples include no win no fee, damages-based agreements and third party funding.
Read our recommendations for addressing the limitations of these funding models (PDF 645kb)
Incentivising public bodies to make better decisions
Government bodies, local authorities and other organisations sometimes take decisions that are inappropriate or fail to act on their statutory duties. This creates work and costs for the legal system.
Read our recommendations for improving decision-making by public bodies (PDF 565kb)
A strategy for ensuring proper access to justice is essential, particularly in those areas affecting fundamental rights but also where a citizen simply needs advice. Some of this will need to be funded by the state and we believe that there is a strong economic case for reversing many of the LASPO cuts and doing so in a way that will enable citizens to assert their rights. Solicitors have a key role to play in the administration of justice and we wish to keep it that way.
Recent changes have meant an erosion in affordable access to justice. The Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Select Committee have identified this problem and recommended that the government take urgent steps to address it. Our recommendations are designed to help the government do this.