20:08, October 30 66 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-30 20:08:03
Impact of cuts to legal aid to come under review

The justice secretary, David Liddington, has committed his department to review the deep cuts imposed on legal aid by the coalition government in 2012.

The long-anticipated consultation will run into next year and is likely to focus on whether the intended £450m a year savings were achieved and whether access to justice has been restricted.

Critics of the the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) have included senior judges, human rights bodies and opposition parties. They have argued that the family courts, in particular, have been swamped by unrepresented litigants in person and that savings in one area resulted in increased costs elsewhere in government.

The government’s own statistics show spending on legal aid has fallen sharply from £2.6bn in 2005-06 to £1.5bn last year. The steepest decline came after 2013 when Laspo came into effect.

Legal aid was introduced in 1949 by the postwar Labour government along with the NHS and welfare reforms. It never gained the level of public affection that the health service achieved, partly because few people anticipated having to go to court. The last Labour government began making cuts before 2010.

In a written statement to parliament, Liddington said: “Our legal aid system is a fundamental pillar of access to justice, accounting for more than a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget.

“The reforms within [Laspo] were founded on delivering better value for money for taxpayers by reducing the cost of the scheme and discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation, while ensuring that legal aid continues to be available for the highest priority cases, for example where life or liberty is at stake, where someone faces the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases, or where their children may be taken into care.”

At the time the act was passed – in the face of repeated opposition from the House of Lords – the government promised that it would hold a “post-implementation review”.

The MoJ consultation will examine limits imposed on the scope of legal aid for family, civil and criminal cases, the working of the exceptional case funding scheme, changes made to legal fees and the introduction of evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

It will look into the introduction of the mandatory telephone gateway for legal aid applications, changes to the rules on financial eligibility and caps on put upon the subject matter of disputes.

The review is due to conclude “before the start of the summer recess 2018”. Interested individuals and organisations would be invited, the statement said, to join consultative panels and contribute to the review.

The review is, according to the MoJ, intended to ensure that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases while discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation and ensuring value for taxpayers’ money.

The justice minister Dominic Raab said: “We will review the legal aid changes introduced, and I will shortly be writing to interested groups to invite them to inform this important work.

“Maintaining access to justice continues to be at the heart of our reforms. We are focusing legal aid resources on those who most need help. Last year, we spent £1.6bn on legal aid last year, just over a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget.”

A Labour-backed report by the former justice minister Lord Bach last month recommended spending an additional £400m to restore access to a more generous system of legal aid.

Joe Egan, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “[Laspo] meant hundreds of thousands of people eligible for legal aid on 31 March 2013 became ineligible the very next day. Even those ... whom parliament vowed at the time of Laspo should be able to access legal help are unable to get the advice and representation they need.

“This post-implementation appraisal by government is long-awaited and needs to be comprehensive ... If people cannot access advice or protect their rights, then effectively those rights do not exist.”

Andrew Landon QC, the chair of the Bar Council, said: “This long-awaited review offers the government an important opportunity to take stock of the damage caused by the unprecedented cuts to legal aid that Laspo introduced and to reassess the value of justice to citizens.

“This review comes not a moment too soon; society has become increasingly aware of the importance of access to justice in underpinning the rule of law and our democratic constitutional arrangements.

“The announcement follows several years of sustained pressure from the Bar Council and many other organisations who work to promote the public interest of our citizens.”