On 31st March 2013 whole swathes of the population were stopped from accessing legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Legal Aid was removed for the majority of advice and representation on immigration, employment, welfare benefits, debt, housing and family law issues.
On 29th June 2017 the Law Society published a review on the effects of LASPO, the report is called Access Denied? LASPO four years on.
The aim of the LASPO was to save £450 million out of the public purse. The thrust of the report is that the ‘cuts have fallen most disproportionately on the most economically deprived’.
It questions whether the cuts have actually saved public money. Early legal advice very often stops a problem from escalating which in turn puts pressure on other services. In the family law arena, disputes over arrangements for children can frequently be resolved through correspondence or at mediation and thus avoid the need for court proceedings. What has happened is that more unrepresented people are applying to the courts as litigants in person which puts more and more pressure on an already creaking court system.
The other effects of are less quantifiable. Homelessness or debt problems, for example, can very easily lead to long term health issues which will impact on the NHS.
The report makes a number of costed recommendations to reinstate certain elements of legal aid. For family cases, this would include all clients who are financially eligible being able to access initial advice to discuss the options available. It also suggests that legal aid should be fully reinstated for parties involved in Special Guardianship applications – this is usually where a family member seeks to have a child living with them, with the support of social services.
The recommendations also include a number of measures to make legal aid more easily accessible; the current system is extremely bureaucratic and difficult to navigate.
The conclusions are summarised as follows:-
- Legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it
2. Those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access it
3. Wide gaps in provision are not being addressed
4. LASPO has had a wider and detrimental impact on the state and society.
For those working in legal aid, the conclusions of the report comes as no surprise. Hopefully, the report will be considered by those in government and consideration given to implementing at least some of recommendations. The full report can be accessed at: www.lawsociety.org.uk/laspo-4-years-on.