Access to British justice increasingly only for the few - Law Society warns ministers

Public access to the justice system has never been so restricted, the Law Society warned today as it filed a hard-hitting submission to government highlighting the devastating consequences of cuts to publicly funded legal advice.

In its response to the Ministry of Justice's review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), the Law Society spelled out the disproportionate cost of the legislation to taxpayers* and the seriously damaging effect of limiting access to justice for ordinary and vulnerable people.

Recently gathered first-hand accounts from solicitors on the front line of justice reveal the increasingly challenging task of delivering basic legal advice to clients facing homelessness or even domestic abuse.

"If British justice still exists it is only for the wealthy, or the small number on very low incomes lucky enough to find a solicitor willing and able to fight a mountain of red tape to secure legal aid," said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws.

"That's because the means test bites at such a low level and because more and more solicitors are giving up battling the bureaucracy and uneconomic rates of pay that accompany legal aid work, leading to growing advice deserts across the country.

"But there's a swelling justice deficit here - if people cannot effectively enforce and defend their rights, then for all practical purposes those rights do not exist."

Since March 2013 hundreds of thousands of people have become ineligible for legal aid, including victims of domestic abuse who are unable to secure an injunction to protect themselves from harm if they can't afford to pay the required contributions.

"Our latest report: 'Civil and Criminal Solicitors' Views on LASPO'** paints a stark picture of people being denied legal aid when they are already at recognised levels of poverty," added Christina Blacklaws.

"There is clear evidence that providing legal aid for early legal help, particularly in housing and family matters, is far more cost-effective than denying it. And just as people expect an NHS doctor to treat them when they fall sick - they should be able to get legal advice if they have a serious legal problem."

Because of LASPO:

  • Solicitors are routinely having to turn away people needing legal representation because funding is no longer there for legal aid.
  • Even those on the lowest incomes who are eligible for legal aid are excluded from accessing justice if they have savings or assets, such as the roof over their head. ***
  • Working people on low incomes accused of wrongdoing are being systematically denied their right to a fair trial, because they are not being provided with representation even when they clearly cannot afford to pay for it themselves.

"The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario: civil, family and criminal defence solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession. Government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering fields of law covered by legal aid. What message does this send the world about our justice system?"

Notes to editors:

* The Law Society commissioned an independent research agency to conduct qualitative research among criminal and civil legal aid solicitors to provide evidence for the Law Society's submission to a post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) due to be conducted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Read the Law Society LASPO Submission

** The Law Society published analysis in July showing the cost of running a single courtroom for a day is £2,692 - not including legal advice.

*** The harsh legal aid means test has meant people on incomes already 10 per cent to 30 per cent below the minimum income standard have been excluded from legal aid, so poverty hit families are being denied vital help to fight eviction, tackle severe housing disrepair and address other life-changing legal issues.

LASPO reduced the scope of publicly funded civil legal aid available for areas such as family law, social welfare issues and immigration. Administration of the legal aid system was also affected with creation of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). Changes to criminal legal aid included a cut to the fees paid to solicitors for criminal defence work, and proposals to limit the number of contracts to perform legal aid work.

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