We have a monthly column in the Law Society Messenger. This month, we were delighted to be asked to produce the cover story on the important topic of the LASPO review.
Early 2018 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). LASPO imposed some of the most radical changes to legal aid since being established as a central pillar of the post-war welfare state.
The LASPO cuts have not only affected some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community but have also caused irreversible damage to the Legal Aid and voluntary advice sector. The number of solicitor firms providing civil Legal Aid in the North West alone have fallen by roughly 34.2% from 2011-2012 to 2017-2018, expenditure for not for profits providing Legal Aid has fallen by roughly 72.7%, and the number of not for profit providers has fallen by 55.9%.
The Legal Aid Agency’sdirectory of providersindicates that there are only four separate providers for welfare benefits contracts in Greater Manchester. “We’re one of them, and two of the others are also charities,” says the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) supervising solicitor, Ngaryan Li.”
By delaying the process, the MoJ has created the impression that addressing LASPO’s impact on access to justice was not a priority. The review should have been completed by April 2018, five years after coming into force. Significantly overdue it was only published this month.
The MoJ gathered evidence on the impact of some of LASPO’s key measures, including removing areas such as family, housing and welfare from scope.
They consulted with over 100 organisations and individuals across the country, who are dealing with the effects of LASPO, speaking to a wide cross section of our community shut out of the justice system, unable to defend their homes or fight for the benefits they are entitled to. With the evidence they gave they tried to open the Government’s eyes to suffering, injustice and structural damage the cuts have caused.
Since we, GMLC, first opened our doors in 2016, we have seen the devastating impact LASPO cuts have had on some of the most vulnerable members of our community on a daily basis.
Show me the money
MoJ officials indicated in 2018 that they are not willing to consider measures requiring extra funds. Matthew Shelley, the ministry’s deputy director for legal support and court fees, was reported as telling a LASPO review conference that “reversing the cuts is not a solution,”and an all-party parliamentary group that “putting money back into the system and reversing the reforms” is not an answer.
So, according to the LASPO review, the MoJ are merely offering £8m for specific measures – a trivial amount.
Since 2013 roughly £610mhave been lost from the legal aid budget, more than intended. These are not efficiency savings but simply a removal of availability of free legal advice.
The Government has taken it away and now the MoJ’s answer is… pilots
The legal advice sector has repeatedly argued that there is a particular issue around problem clustering, as legal advice has become crisis driven. Two of the key criticisms of those responding to the LASPO consultation was the needless harm and false economy cause by the prohibition on free legal advice at an early and preventative stage and the inability to address the interconnected and underlying problems that need to be solved for a person’s legal dispute to be resolved.
The MoJ quotes in their Legal Support Action Planone practitioner’s findings that 50% of housing possession cases for which they receive legal aid could be traced back to a housing benefit issue.
People who seek advice at GMLC are also caught in a vicious cycle: welfare benefit delays and sanctions lead to stress, mental health issues, even suicidal thoughts. Understandably decisions are made to feed their children rather than pay their landlord, which at times leads to destitution and homelessness.
However, the MoJ says they need to establish a more robust evidence base through piloting and evaluating different forms of early legal face-to-face support for social welfare, in order to avoid the escalation of problems. This is promised for Autumn 2019. Is the Government oblivious to the fact that it is a consequence of removing housing and welfare from scope, instances of statutory homelessness have been increasing?Why do they need more research, when they admit that they may have shifted costs to other departments?
The Action Plan addresses the fact that many not‑for‑profits focus on specialist issues or groups, which may lead to people falling through the net if their issues cannot be addressed holistically. Again, collaboration and a pilot is promised, but no time-frame has been specified.
Restoring legal aid in a few limited cases, overhauling the not fit for purpose exceptional case funding system and experimenting with digital solutions does not address the urgent crisis our justice system is in – not when we are faced with advice deserts and the entire future of legal aid practice and practitioners is threatened.
By Astrid Johnson, Greater Manchester Law Centre Development Manager
GMLC research: https://www.gmlaw.org.uk/2018/12/18/legal-aid-letter/
GMLC article 11/12/2018: https://www.gmlaw.org.uk/2018/12/11/decimated-legal-aid/