The Ministry of Justice has promised to review the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, after recent pressure from MPs and peers who have identified numerous legal aid ‘deserts’. An issue solicitors at Duncan Lewis have already identified as a concern and acted upon for some time.
Following a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), calls for an urgent review into changes to the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) exceptional case funding scheme are in place as lawyers are increasingly withdrawing from services that are no longer financially viable, resulting in the emergence of legal aid ‘deserts’.
Harriet Harman, who chaired the committee, said;
“For rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced. At the moment we are seeing the erosion of all of those enforcement mechanisms because of a lack of access to justice and lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of human rights and the rule of law. The government must act urgently to address this.”
Those on the committee criticised the reforms introduced by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which made access to justice even more difficult for those who already find it unaffordable. To combat this, the committee has recommended a review of the current financial eligibility criteria for legal aid which is currently means tested.
President of the Law Society, Christina Blacklaws, said:
“Legal aid is truly a lifeline for the vulnerable. We welcome the fact the committee took our evidence on board regarding the impact that changes to legal aid in 2012 has had on the ability of individuals to access justice, and the detrimental impact of the legal aid cuts on wider society.”
The Ministry of Justice is reviewing the act and has promised to report its findings by the end of the year.
The call for review is welcome and not a moment too soon. As the largest legal aid provider in the UK and with approximately 85% of our cases publicly funded each year, we have a deep understanding of how legal aid can benefit both individuals and communities as a whole and recognise how the reforms to the legal aid system have discouraged necessary litigation to protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable in society.
Aside from reducing costs and delivering value for money, the reforms to legal aid introduced by LASPO aimed to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at the public expense and to target legal aid to those who need it the most.
Restricting access to justice does nothing to build or develop communities and has the potential to encourage those in need of legal aid and assistance to turn to drastic - measures in order to try and better the situations they find themselves in.
Despite the ongoing cuts, we have continued to thrive as a nationwide provider of legal aid services, assisting many of the most vulnerable in society.
It cannot be denied, however, that the challenges we face concerning the provision of legal aid services have grown increasingly in recent years. The number of pro bono surgeries and clinics established by our pro bono committee has grown significantly in recent times with our solicitors identifying legal aid ‘deserts’ of our own and working hard to set up pro bono surgeries in these areas.
At Duncan Lewis, we share the JCHR’s concern that reforms have reduced access to judicial review. Since LASPO, it has not been possible to use delegated functions to start work on emergency judicial review cases, a situation made worse by the LAA’s position that it cannot backdate funding to the date of an application even when it has delayed a decision, made a poor initial decision or when work simply had to take place on an urgent basis – a policy Duncan Lewis is challenging by way of judicial review.
Perhaps our dedication to assisting clients in spite of the difficulties created by the legal aid restrictions is best demonstrated by the actions of Public Law Director Ahmed Aydeed. Ahmed represented a vulnerable, young British teenager who had been unrepresented for four years thanks to the lack of legal aid available in Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) claims. He ultimately took on the case on a pro bono basis and successfully represented the client in her appeal.
Actions like Ahmed’s exemplify our commitment to helping those in need access justice but extreme actions should not have to happen when the right to justice is such a fundamental rule of law.
We will closely monitor the Ministry of Justice’s reaction to the human rights committee’s calls for review but in the meantime we will continue in our quest to widen access to justice no matter what the prevailing climate.
Public Law Director Ahmed Aydeed has extensive specialist experience in advising individuals on all types of public law issues; with a broad practice in the areas of public law & human rights, including asylum, international protection, EU law, nationality law, administrative detention, discrimination & equality.
Contact Ahmed on 020 7275 2668 or via email at email@example.com.
Duncan Lewis Solicitors
Duncan Lewis Solicitors, established in 1998, is a national law firm serving both corporate entities and private individuals from 52 offices across London and throughout the UK. In 2009 Duncan Lewis was the first law firm in the UK to achieve the Investors in People Gold Quality Standard Mark and is recognised by Legal 500 as a Top Tier firm for its immigration and human rights work.
Established areas of law are: action against public authorities, business immigration, child care, civil liberties, clinical negligence, community care, crime and fraud, dispute resolution, debt and insolvency, employment, family and divorce, housing, Islamic law, asylum and immigration, litigation, mental health, mental capacity, personal injury, prison law, professional negligence, public law and administrative law, regulatory matters, wills and probate and welfare benefits.