Civil legal aid system is in post LASPO ‘free fall’, says LAG

The Legal Action Group is calling for the post-LASPO underspend on civil legal aid to be reinvested into an innovation fund as well as ‘immediate action’ to tackle the emergence of housing legal aid deserts. Back in 2014, the group revealed that the government had spent £117m less on legal aid than the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) actually budgeted for (see here).

In a new report drawing on existing research, LAG researcher Lucy Logan Green and the group’s head of policy James Sandbach argue that the civil legal aid system is in ‘free fall’ as a result of the April 2013 cuts introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Whilst the LASPO reforms were ‘effective in their goal of reducing the cost of legal aid’, there was ‘a blatant disregard for the wider societal costs and consequences of these reforms’, the authors said.

‘The rise in the number of litigants in person, the increase in the number of tenancy evictions and undefended landlord possession claims in the county courts, an accelerating trend of debt and benefit-related destitution and the growth of domestic abuse with negative consequences for family breakdown and children’s welfare all result in additional costs falling on the justice system and other public bodies, such as social services and local authority housing options and homelessness teams.
Meanwhile, the unmet need for information, support, advice and representation in relation to civil law matters remains a growing problem not only for the courts and government, but also for the capacity of society to operate under the rule of law with citizens unable to access social entitlements and seek redress through the justice system. Our analysis demonstrates that the civil legal aid system is in free fall. Yet there is no evidence that the need for advice and representation will disappear.’
Lucy Logan Green and James Sandbach, LAG

You can read the full report here

The House of Commons’ justice committee last year said that the government’s underspend on the civil legal aid budget was the result of (in its words) ‘an overly restrictive and bureaucratic approach’ to the exceptional cases funding scheme; ‘poor provision of information’ on availability and eligibility for legal aid; and ‘a lack of understanding’ of the routes people take to mediation.

LAG is calling for the underspend from the last three years to be ‘reinvested’ in an ‘innovation and early intervention fund’ which, the group argues, could be distributed on the basis of grant funding bids ‘for example, for second-tier specialist support, online tools, and public legal education projects’.

The report also highlights the Ministry of Justice’s expenditure on legal aid admin. ‘While the LAA budget has been cut by 25% since LASPO, administration costs in 2015/16 have increased to over £100m; this is around a fifth of the amount currently allocated to civil and family legal aid and more than the LAA’s entire expenditure on civil legal help,’ it said. It noted that the agency’s services, especially its troubled new CCMS digital billing system, ‘have become increasingly dysfunctional’.

Logan and Sandbach described the impact of LASPO on advice agencies and high-street law firms as ‘profound’. It flagged up evidence by the Law Society to the Justice Committee that, although the number of legal aid contracts was not significantly reduced by LASPO, the scope cuts led to the ‘downsizing of departments… and consequent redundancies’.

According to the report, ‘the most startling revelation’ was that there were parts of the country, such as Suffolk and Shropshire, with no housing legal aid supplier operating at all.

The volume of legally aided housing cases halved between July to September 2012 and July to September 2013 as a direct result of the LASPO cuts. Despite legal aid being available for those in danger of losing their home and, as noted by the Guardian, at a time of record repossessions in the private rental market, the number of cases has been falling since then and, in April to June 2016, there was an 18% decrease compared with the same quarter the previous year.

 


LAG’s recommendations

  • Immediate commencement of the post-implementation review of the LASPO reforms, to be commissioned independently from the MoJ, looking at whether the reforms and the current structure have targeted legal aid for those who need it the most, and set against clear criteria for change and improvement.
  • The existing underspend in civil legal aid from the past three years should be reinvested in an innovation and early intervention fund, which could be distributed on the basis of grant funding bids (for example, for second-tier specialist support, online tools, and public legal education projects).
  • The MoJ should set a target for reducing spend on bureaucracy and reinvesting this in frontline services and contracts; this could be achieved by greater delegation of powers and decision-making to provider bodies, more discretion operating at central level at the LAA, and simpler systems.
  • Immediate action should be taken to address the low approval rates for exceptional funding through improving the guidance to decision-makers, reducing the bureaucracy of the application process and including the making of ECF applications within the remunerative activity under legal aid contracts.
  • As recommended by the Justice Committee (see above), the MoJ needs to respond to low take-up of civil legal aid with a public information campaign about what problems legal aid is available for and how to seek help; this could be linked to a wider public legal education campaign involving a range of stakeholders.
  • Immediate action should be taken over the emergence of housing legal aid deserts and the increasing needs in this area of advice, by making arrangements to ensure there is contracted provision in all procurement areas and introducing greater flexibility and tolerances within housing legal aid work to enable providers to take on cases with less immediate risk of repossession or homelessness.

 

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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