In the report, published today, the Justice Committee concludes that the civil legal aid cuts “failed to target help where needed”.
The Government achieved its aim of substantially reducing the civil legal aid budget but the Justice Committee concluded that it had failed to target legal aid to those who need it most and had not discouraged unnecessary litigation at public expense and could not show it was delivering better overall value for money for the taxpayer. These were the Government’s four objectives for the civil legal aid reforms in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and this was the conclusion of the House of Commons Justice Committee in its review of the legislation.
Sara Stephens, a solicitor in Anthony Gold’s housing team and a member of the Housing Law Practitioners Association’s (HLPA) Executive Committee heading up its Legal Aid Working Group, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee in October 2014, following written evidence submitted by HLPA to the Committee. In today’s report she is quoted as saying: “The idea that a finite amount of people can get assistance is a problem and does go against the supposed aims of LASPO, which is to help the most serious and vulnerable clients - the most serious cases - because it effectively means that the first, say, 100 people through the door get the help and anyone who arrives after that does not.” The cumulative effect of all the issues outlined in the report was, HLPA suggested, that there were now “advice deserts” for some areas of law in some parts of the country.
Sara also commented on the issue of the complexity and cost of cases where some parts remain eligible for legal aid and others are outside the scheme. This could be a particular problem for housing matters where the landlord had brought possession proceedings for non-payment of rent, for which legal aid is available, but the primary reason for non-payment of rent is a problem with the payment of housing benefit, which is not eligible for legal aid. Sara says that lawyers on the Lambeth county court duty scheme found around half of all housing cases were being adjourned for this reason.
The Chair of the Justice Committee, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, concludes that the introduction of LASPO has “limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget. Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research, a better evidence base to work from, and better public information about the reforms. It is vitally important that the MoJ work to remedy this from now on, so that a review of the policy can be undertaken.”