Legal aid funding needed now more than ever

The House of Commons Justice Committee today (July 27) published its report on the future of legal aid.*

“We welcome the Justice Committee’s report which shines a light on the problems blighting the legal aid system,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Legal aid lawyers were operating in a highly challenging environment even before the pandemic, with no fee increases for more than 20 years. Now more than ever there is a need for investment to ensure legal representation is available to those without the means to pay for it.

“People living below the poverty line are regularly denied legal aid by a too stringent means test. Many others face legal issues such as in housing, employment and family law with no recourse because of cuts to legal aid.

“Legal aid deserts must be ended. Civil and criminal practitioners should be paid properly for their expert work which is crucial to providing access to justice and the rule of law.”

Criminal legal aid

“The criminal defence profession in England and Wales will not survive without additional investment after a quarter of a century of austerity,” added I. Stephanie Boyce.

“We welcome the report’s recognition of the importance of parity with prosecutors in pay rates and regular reviews in line with inflation to ensure equality of arms and the long-term sustainability of the criminal defence profession.

“The committee echoes our belief that fee structures need to be amended so as to ensure that fees and rates reflect the work required.

“The report’s recommendations reflect our submissions to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid. We ardently hope that the review will recommend that the government provides the funding required to keep the system viable.”

Civil legal aid

“The committee rightly highlights the value of early advice and we agree with the recommendation that the government should take a ‘whole justice system approach’ to reform of civil legal aid,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.

“We think there could be merit in the call for a ‘complete overhaul’ of the civil legal aid system but would want to consider this more carefully.

“We strongly endorse the committee’s call for caution in relying on limited support for litigants in person, and other potential alternatives to the tailored legal advice which is required in our adversarial justice system.”

Legal Aid Agency (LAA)

“We are pleased to see that the committee supports our suggestion that judges should be empowered to direct that an individual needs representation and that it should then be binding on the LAA to fund that,” said I. Stephanie Boyce.

“This both increases access to justice for the most vulnerable and improves court efficiency.

“We strongly agree with the report’s assessment of the role of the LAA, including its perceived ‘culture of refusal’ and the focus on auditing over delivering justice. We agree that a change of approach that reduces unnecessary bureaucracy on both sides is desirable. The suggested remedy of doing this by allowing providers to earn autonomy is well worth exploring further.”

Notes for editors

Read the Justice Committee report here

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