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Westminster Hall debate: The future of legal aid

9 November 2018

On 1 November 2018 a Westminster Hall debate took place on the future of legal aid, tabled by Andy Slaughter MP (Labour). Throughout the debate the Law Society’s key campaigns were noted numerous times.

The full debate can be read on Hansard, and a summary of the debate follows:

Early advice

  • Andy Slaughter MP (Labour) mentioned our early advice campaign, called for legal aid for early advice to be restored, and stated that the ‘lack of early housing law advice on disrepair issues can lead to health, social and financial problems, the tab for which will ultimately be picked up by the NHS and local authorities. Prevention is better than cure.’ He also mentioned our research – ‘a recent report commissioned for the Law Society found that restoring early legal help would save the taxpayer money’.
  • Teresa Pearce MP (Labour) mentioned the Law Society and our early advice campaign, stating that the removal of legal aid for early advice in family law resulted in a 56% decrease in mediation.
  • Lillian Greenwood MP (Labour) also mentioned early advice in relation to housing, saying that a lack of early advice can result in homelessness.
  • Bob Neill MP (Conservative, Chair of the Justice Select Committee) and Alex Chalk MP (Conservative) mentioned early advice and stats from our briefing, saying that it is ‘essential’.
  • Karen Buck MP (Labour) also highlighted that ‘everybody understands the importance of early intervention and preventive services, so we want to get a commitment to putting money back into early help’.
  • Bambos Charalambous MP (Labour) called for the government to restore access to early advice so disputes can be resolved fairly, and reasonably, and so people do not embark on ill-advised, costly litigation.
  • Ellie Reeves MP (Labour) highlighted the impact a lack of early advice can have on the state, citing from our briefing: ‘The cost to the NHS when someone lives in a house in total disrepair is likely to be far greater than the cost of early legal advice to resolve the housing issue. As others have said, the extent to which the legal aid budget was cut is a false economy’.
  • Responding on behalf of the opposition, Gloria De Piero MP (Labour, Shadow Justice Minister) stated that: ‘A Labour government will return all funding for early legal advice, because we know that prevention is better than cure. We will re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts, restore legal advice in all housing cases to protect 50,000 households a year against rogue landlords’.

Criminal legal aid/lawyers

  • Bob Neill MP mentioned the difficulty in getting young lawyers to enter criminal work, and also mentioned AGFS, saying: ‘We cannot have a situation where criminal barristers are worse off, as they are under some aspects of the advocates’ graduated fee scheme at the moment’. He also highlighted Law Society data, saying that in mid and west Wales ‘60% of criminal law duty solicitors were over the age of 50. That situation clearly is not sustainable’.
  • Bambos Charalambous MP mentioned our criminal lawyers heatmap, saying: ‘The Law Society’s heat map study suggests that criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct if nothing is changed. Many criminal law firms have fragile finances and small profit margins. What will happen if those firms close is deeply worrying’.
  • Liz Saville Roberts MP (Plaid Cymru) also welcomed ‘the recent High Court ruling in favour of the Law Society, confirming that the UK government’s latest cuts to the pay of criminal lawyers are unlawful’.

Means test

  • Responding on behalf of the opposition, Gloria De Piero MP stated that the Labour Party commits to review the means test.
  • Andy Slaughter MP called for the means test to be simplified, saying that it should be ‘a simple assessment of gross household income following an adjustment for family size’.

Legal aid deserts

  • Liz Saville Roberts MP mentioned legal aid deserts, saying that LASPO has ‘left Wales with only one housing legal aid provider in half of the procurement areas and a host of problems’.
  • Bambos Charalambous MP mentioned our data on legal aid deserts, highlighted that it was included in the House of Commons Library debate pack: ‘It states almost one third of legal aid areas have just one, and in some cases zero, law firms providing legal advice through legal aid’.

Justice Week

  • Ellie Reeves MP highlighted our Justice Week survey, saying that ‘a recent survey commissioned by the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives showed that 78% of people agree that justice is as important as health or education, yet only 20% of the 2,000 respondents thought there was sufficient funding for those who need legal advice’.

General

  • Andy Slaughter MP thanked Lucy Frazer QC MP for confirming the LASPO review will be published before the end of the year.
  • He called for more funding for legal aid: ‘My first request to the Minister is that she tackle the funding issue head on. No one is saying that all the cuts since 2010 will be reversed, or that the clock will be turned back, but if the government wish to honour their stated objectives for LASPO, and in particular, “to target legal aid at those who need it most”, they must put something extra in the pot’.
  • He also mentioned that half of the MPs who responded to a survey carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid said that the volume of constituency casework had increased over the past year. More than half said they had seen a notable increase in the complexity of that work.
  • Andy Slaughter MP mentioned our briefing/the Law Society by name at the start of the debate, along with a number of other organisations who briefed ahead of the debate, and he also noted our 'expert opinion' on the impact of LASPO, along with other organisations.
  • Bob Neill MP stated that: ‘In cutting down on some instances of needless expenditure that went beyond what was necessary to ensure justice, there is always a risk that the pendulum will go too far the other way… I am sorry to say that I am driven to the conclusion that that is what has happened here’.
  • Alex Chalk MP stated that the current state of legal aid means that our ‘international reputation is at stake’ adding that the legal sector is one of the most important in our economy’. Bob Neill MP added that the system’s ‘integrity depends on the whole system being properly resourced and funded’.
  • Karen Buck MP mentioned the Law Society by name, highlighting our attendance at this week’s meeting of the APPG on legal aid. She highlighted that legal aid lawyers are in challenging financial circumstances.
  • Kate Green MP argued that the absence of legal aid funding has driven legal aid solicitors and not-for-profit providers out of the market and Jim Cunningham MP (Labour) also flagged that most advice centres are experiencing staff shortages and underfunding.

Responding for the government, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP stated:

  • On legal aid: ‘Legal aid has always been and remains available for the highest priority cases where people are at their most vulnerable’.
  • On legal aid providers: ‘When civil legal aid contracts were recently put out to tender, 1,700 bidders took part, but we need to ensure that people who want to do this work are available to do it across the country, not just in high-density areas, and we need to ensure that there is provision in more sparsely populated areas where those contracts are less lucrative’.
  • On early advice: ‘The point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard’.

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