20:16, March 19 150 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-19 20:16:06
Poorest priced out of justice by legal aid rules, says Law Society

Some of the poorest families in England and Wales are being denied legal aid because they cannot afford the financial contributions they are required to make, according to the Law Society.

A study commissioned by the body that represents solicitors criticised the fact that many on low incomes are being deprived of access to justice by the very system that is supposed to support them.

The report, titled Priced out of Justice?, looked at means testing regulations which control eligibility for legal aid and how applicants resisting eviction from their homes, for example, are unable to obtain legal representation.

“Many people living substantially below [the minimum income standard (MIS)] are excluded from legal aid entirely or are awarded it but required to make contributions that bring their income even further below [that standard],” the report’s author, Prof Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University, maintained.

Around 30% of the UK population, equivalent to 19 million people, live below the nationally recognised minimum income standard (MIS). Poverty is commonly defined as as living in a household with below 60% of the median income. Legal aid is supposed to provide a safety net for those on low incomes.

The government spends around £1.6bn a year on legal aid. The figure has been repeatedly cut by successive governments. The Law Society said the situation is getting progressively worse because means test thresholds, which govern eligibility for legal aid, have been frozen since 2010 while the cost of living has continued to rise. Some of those affected are below the poverty threshold.

Hirsch pointed out that the assumption that someone could sell their home to cover a legal bill is out of line with other forms of state means-testing, such as help with care costs where the value of a home is ignored if the applicant lives there.

The Law Society is asking the government to restore the means test to its 2010 real-terms level. It also wants to exempt those on means tested benefits from capital assessments.

The Law Society president, Joe Egan, said: “No one in modern society should have to choose between accessing the justice system and a minimum living standard. The financial eligibility test for civil legal aid is disqualifying people from receiving badly needed legal advice and representation even though they are already below the poverty line.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “It is simply unacceptable that millions of people are unable to access legal support because they live on a low income. We must loosen these constraints so people are protected from harm when things go wrong and can build a better life.”

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