LASPO cuts have created a ‘two-tier’ justice system, says Amnesty International

Amnesty International is calling on Theresa May to immediately review the LASPO cuts which they claim have created a system of ‘two-tier justice’. The human rights group also made the case for ditching the proposed residence test and reinstating public funding for family cases and immigration cases.

As a result of the April 2013 cuts to the legal aid scheme, the group said that there now was ‘a two-tier justice system: open to those who can afford it, but, increasingly closed to the poorest, most vulnerable and most in need of its protection’. You can read the report here.

‘If Theresa May is really determined to deliver a country that works for all then there needs to be a justice system for everyone, not just those who can afford it,’ commented Alice Wyss, Amnesty International’s UK researcher. Amnesty argues that, ‘in human rights terms’, the cuts were ‘a retrogressive measure’. ‘They were primarily motivated by a desire to reduce spending on the justice system at a time of increased fiscal pressure, but were made with insufficient regard for the potential negative and profound impacts on the protection of human rights in the UK,’ the group said. The year before LASPO came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases and the year after it was available in only 497,000 cases – ‘a staggering drop of 46 per cent’, the group noted.

The report draws on research conducted between October last year and June 2016 including interviews with 30 individuals who were not eligible for legal aid as a result of the cuts identified mainly through the not-for-profit sector. ‘Behind these cases Amnesty International believes there are many more who have simply not been able to access free support,’ the group said. The lack of research into the impact of cuts was ‘one of the most pressing reasons’ why ‘a thorough and urgent review’ was needed. The government has committed to reviewing the cuts by April 2018.

Amnesty said that the exceptional case funding regime – LASPO’s so-called ‘safety net’ provision – was ‘failing’. ‘The evidence strongly suggests that significant numbers have slipped or are slipping through. How many of this silent, hidden group have actually been affected is inevitably unknown, but it is precisely for these reasons that the government should investigate further.’

The report quoted Michael Tarnoky, director of the Lambeth Law Centre. ‘We do sometimes apply for exceptional case funding, but the whole process is incredibly problematic,’ Tarnoky said. ‘The risks involved, the work required, the way it’s set up. The whole system just creates an additional barrier which vulnerable people with difficult complex cases have to get through. It’s simply inadequate.’

According to Amnesty, the LASPO cuts have had ‘far-reaching and negative implications’ for vulnerable young people. ‘Children and vulnerable young people cannot be expected to navigate complex legal processes alone, yet that is precisely what LASPO allows for,’ the group said.

One lawyer told the group: ‘The idea that children and young people can represent themselves just does not work. This is such a vulnerable group. It’s not just that they don’t understand legal processes and legal concepts, which they don’t, but it’s also that they have no idea how to fill forms out properly, what to write, where to send paperwork, where to get advice and who to speak to. Without professional support they simply can’t access justice and they can’t engage with the legal process.’

Amnesty called the impact of the removal of legal aid from immigration and family reunification cases ‘profound’. ‘They are left to try and navigate complex legal processes, with ever changing immigration rules, as they face potential removal and separation of their family or being left trapped in poverty, excluded from work, education and vulnerable to exploitation,’ the group said.

Further, Amnesty said it heard cases of ‘people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities, low numeracy and literacy levels, language problems, medical conditions such as terminal illness, and alcohol and drug dependency’ who were struggling to ‘effectively advocate for themselves and claim their rights’. ‘Many are forced to wait until crisis point before they can get help and advice, taking a significant toll on their well-being, as they fear falling into further debt, being faced with homelessness or losing access to their children,’ the group said.

‘Access to justice forms part of the bedrock of human rights protection in any state. It is a core element of an individual’s right to an effective remedy, the right to fair trial and the right to equality before the law. In the UK it is the provision of legal aid that has acted as a cornerstone guaranteeing the structural integrity of the broader edifice of access to justice. Without timely and accessible legal advice, people cannot effectively claim and enforce their rights and problems can escalate and have profound consequences for individuals and their families.’
Amnesty International


Amnesty International’s recommendations

  • Ensure that children and vulnerable young people are entitled to legal aid regardless of the legal issue at stake;
  • Children and families without sufficient means should be able to obtain legal advice, assistance, and where litigation is contemplated, legal representation free of charge in any case where a child’s best interests are engaged;
  • Restore initial legal advice for private family cases;
  • Restore welfare benefits advice funding;
  • Restore legal aid to all immigration cases raising arguable human rights concerns;
  • Facilitate the provision of meaningful legal information and effective advice for individuals detained under immigration powers;
  • Ensure family reunification cases are entitled to legal aid;
  • Abandon plans to introduce a residence test;
  • Overhaul the Exceptional Case Funding system so as to make it fully accessible to members of the public and ensure that all those who are potentially eligible for Exceptional Case Funding have the opportunity to receive advice on their entitlement and funded assistance in making an application;
  • Work with non-governmental organisations to ensure that those affected by all forms of domestic violence are able to get legal aid in private family law cases and ensure that in other areas of civil law victims of domestic violence are adequately protected;
  • Ensure victims of trafficking are able to exercise their right to seek reparations and hold to account those who have exploited them.

 

 

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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