Long awaited review of how the legal aid system is operating.
In last March’s newsletter we told you about the research that Mind had commissioned into how legal aid cuts introduced by LASPO had had a disproportionate impact on people with mental health problems. We mentioned then that a post-implementation review of Part 1 of LASPO was expected in the summer of 2018. Well, it arrived (all 289 pages of it) several months late in February 2019 together with an action plan. In a nutshell – there was some welcome news, some disappointments and plenty more work to be done.
LASPO, as many of you will know, was introduced with the objectives of:
- Discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense
- Targeting legal aid to those who need it most
- Making significant savings in the cost of the scheme and,
- Delivering better overall value for money for the taxpayer
This review sought to examine how the legislation was delivering against these objectives.
The fact alone that the government had conducted this review after successive governments had made further cuts to legal aid was welcome in itself, as is the comprehensive nature of the review. However, Mind is concerned that some of the areas which it had fed into the review, along with other bodies such as other charities, the EHRC, the Law Centres Network and others, were not given adequate attention. Mind and others had supplied evidence about how certain disadvantaged groups, such as those with mental health problems had borne the brunt of the cuts and been particularly disadvantaged in having to self-represent in courts and tribunals. Mind feels that the government’s response – dismissing the majority of the evidence as “anecdotal” – does a disservice to the rigorous evidence based case put forward. Quantitative evidence is difficult to come by, but qualitative evidence is a useful and robust way to gauge the impact of the legislation.
The government’s conclusion that the current network of advice providers, whether law firms or advice agencies, is sustainable is suspect. Law firms are ceasing to provide services in some legal fields or in legally aided work altogether and law centres and advice agencies are closing down. This means that the communities that they served no longer have access to legal services to enforce or defend their rights. The government’s suggestion that web based products, better signposting and joining up of services will address the legal aid desserts that have been created in the aftermath of LASPO is entirely unrealistic.
On the positive side, Mind welcomes the government’s commitment to: -
- Review the thresholds for legal aid entitlement
- Raise awareness of entitlements to legal support
- Reinstate immediate access to face-to-face advice in discrimination debt and special educational needs cases
- Simplify the Exceptional Case Funding scheme and,
- Make changes to legal aid for inquests.
One matter on which there will be further research is the question of early intervention. Numerous respondents had commented that LASPO had basically eviscerated the provision of early advice in many legal areas meaning that people only received legal assistance at the point of crisis. The Citizens Advice pointed out that for each £1 spent on advice for housing, debt, employment and welfare benefits could lead to savings of between £2.34 and £8.80 in public spending elsewhere. It is a shame that the government did not take at face value what seems to be self-evident (that a crisis is far more expensive that preventative measures) but at least it has committed to further evaluating and piloting different forms of early legal support.
Finally there is some cash. £5M will be made available to fund “innovative technologies” and testing new ways to deliver early advice and £1.5M to help unrepresented litigants. However, some might say that this is a drop in the ocean compared to the £350M that LASPO has stripped from the annual legal aid expenditure. Mind will continue to press for a fair legal aid system that does not disadvantage those with mental health problems.