Author: Owen Bowcott
Claimants have been deprived of entitlement to legal advice and representation across vast areas of civil law under restrictions imposed by the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Before Laspo came into force, civil legal aid was provided to applicants in 785,000 cases in 2010-11; by 2017-18, that figure had fallen to 140,000.
The Personal Support Unit that helps those without representation says its work has increased fivefold over the same period. Last year, it supported litigants in person on 65,000 occasions.
‘It’s not justice’
The effect has been most dramatic in the family courts where warring ex-partners increasingly face each other without lawyers to moderate disputes. Cases involving litigants-in-person are invariably more difficult to resolve. Last year, both parties were represented in only 20% of such hearings; in 35% neither side was.
Arguing that legal aid should be preserved for the most deserving cases, the Ministry of Justice retained legal aid for victims of domestic violence. The narrow criteria adopted to prove that status, however, led to resentment over having to pay for doctors’ letters. After losing several high court battles, the MoJ relaxed time limits and extended eligibility.
A further consequence of legal aid cuts in divorce and separation proceedings was a steep decline in the number of couples entering mediation. Without lawyers being involved, no one was around to signpost claimants to less confrontational resolutions.
The strain is showing. Penny Scott, a solicitor at Cartridges Law in Exeter and chair of the Law Society’s family law committee, said: “There are many outbreaks of bad behaviour in the family court. That’s why it’s good to have third parties there. For individual parents, it’s unendurable stress. It’s an arcane system and now there’s no one there to explain it to them.
“I know one judge who had a long time off with a breakdown because of the stress in court. A lot of more senior practitioners are retiring early because they don’t think it’s a system they can speak out for. It’s not justice.
Without legal aid, she said, assessments of whether or not there has been domestic abuse by one partner in a separation case carry “a big chance of a miscarriage of justice”. It is a system, Scott warned, open to manipulation.
The financial thresholds for eligibility have been cut so low, she added, that some applicants on benefits have to make financial contributionsif they want legal aid.
‘Few people are turning up’
In housing, Laspo restricted legal aid funding to cases where claimants were at risk of losing their homes. At the same time funding for welfare cases was sharply reduced so the number of benefit cases receiving legal aid plummeted from 83,000 in 2013 to 440 in 2017.
For many families the ability to keep up with rent payments is governed by benefit receipts. Without access to early legal advice to challenge benefit cuts or raise housing issues, help is only available once eviction is threatened. “The lists are now longer for people facing eviction,” said Sue James, supervising solicitor at Hammersmith Law Centre in London, “but few people are turning up.