In 2017 the country has been struck by a series of tragedies. A number of terrorist attacks were followed by the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was united in sympathy for those affected by these events, and wanted to do something to help. The legal community was no different.
Hundreds of lawyers came forward to offer their services pro bono, to help those who had been injured, and those who have lost loved ones, to deal with the legal consequences of what has happened, first in Manchester and then in London.
The legal needs of people caught in terror attacks are for the most part relatively clear-cut: assistance with compensation claims for injuries suffered, or on behalf of the bereaved; help with inquests and administering estates of those who have died.
The legal needs arising out of Grenfell Tower are much more wide-ranging, and are likely to continue for a lot longer. People have lost everything, and need both immediate advice and guidance as to where to turn for the help they need to rebuild their lives. Issues people are facing will range from bereavement, injury and trauma to housing, immigration and benefits, to name but a few.
The public inquiry will last for many months, and its findings will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the legal rights and remedies available to former residents.
The local Law Centre, Citizens Advice and Shelter all worked tirelessly, with the help of massed ranks of pro bono volunteers, to provide immediate legal guidance and support to anyone who needed it. This is where pro bono shows one of its major strengths. Without needing to worry about eligibility criteria and bureaucracy, lawyers can get on with the job of providing immediate urgent assistance, and directing people to the sources of the longer term legal support they will need.
But the extent of the needs here is beyond anything pro bono can provide. If the sources of longer term support do not exist, there will be nowhere for pro bono lawyers to refer people on to, and they won’t get the help they need. Legal aid used to be the bulwark of that longer term support. Now it feels less like a bulwark and more like a rusting hulk, in urgent need of major renovation if it is not to rot away entirely.
The effects of cuts to legal aid
Before the dreaded Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), legal aid was available for any area of law apart from a short list of categories that were excluded. That is not to say that the previous decade hadn’t been challenging. Since 1999, legal aid became progressively more restricted. Payments to lawyers have not increased in cash terms since then, so the work has long since become economically unviable for many firms, who have simply given up trying to provide it. Bureaucracy increased substantially. The government kept salami-slicing bits off the system.
In 2012 with LASPO, the government took an axe to what was left. Wide areas of law, including benefits advice, immigration issues, and much housing advice were removed from the scope of the legal aid scheme. These are exactly the sort of issues on which those affected by the fire now desperately need advice.
No uprate for legal aid eligibility means test since 2010
To make matters worse, up until 2010, the means test - the calculation of whether you are poor enough to qualify for legal aid - was uprated each year to keep pace with the cost of living. Since 2010, it has not been uprated once, with the result that probably hundreds of thousands of people who would have been financially eligible for legal aid now are not. Because this vicious cut is the result of the government simply not acting, rather than a positive act on their part, it has never received the condemnation it deserves.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it became apparent that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), which administers legal aid, was legally required to take account of emergency payments to residents when deciding if they qualified for legal aid. Many people risked failing the means test as a result. To give the Ministry of Justice its due, as soon as the Law Society pointed out this problem, they introduced emergency regulations to allow the LAA to ignore those payments. But it has subsequently become clear that for too many people, the low level of the means test means they still don’t qualify.
Gaping holes in the state funded system
Pro bono has come to the rescue in an emergency situation. The lawyers involved are continuing to try to provide as much help as they can for as long as they can. But charity from individuals and law firms cannot cover all the gaping holes in the state funded system nor meet the enormous range and scope of legal issues faced by people affected by the fire in Grenfell Tower.
The government has recently announced the detail of its post-implementation review of the legal aid cuts. We urge ministers to look at the experiences of those seeking help following the fire in Grenfell Tower as a stark example of what is wrong with LASPO, as well as a clear demonstration of both the great good that pro bono can do and its limitations.
Image editorial credit: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock.com
Information for people affected by the fire in Grenfell Tower