APPG on Legal Aid – 12.07.2017

Report of the inaugural APPG meeting of the new Parliament – 12.07.2017

From Grenfell Tower to unrepresented children to the collapse in legal aid providers, LASPO impedes access to justice

“Where is the Rule of Law when Parliament denies justice to those who can least afford it?”

Lord Neuberger’s comments, quoted by Carol Storer, reflected the overarching theme of the reports and concerning statistics that dominated this busy breakfast gathering of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (“APPG-LA”) on 12 July 2017 – the first of the new Parliament.

From the legal aid cuts stopping residents of Grenfell Tower challenging their Registered Social Landlord, to children being unrepresented in court hearings, the continuing effects of LASPO 2013 were clearly presented before the APPG-LA. The evidence clearly shows that justice is being denied to children, social housing tenants, vulnerable adults, families in crisis and those on benefits.

Karen Buck MP was elected as Chair and Andy Slaughter Vice-Chair. With the appropriate number of Parliamentarians present, the speakers took the floor.

Greg Powell, PSP, Society of Criminal Solicitors

“The Politics of austerity have trumped the politics of access of justice”.

Greg opened with a stark warning for the immediate future within the criminal legal aid world, reminding the APPG that rates have not only been frozen since 1998, but cut under LASPO without taking into account the additional costs involved in cases nowadays due to the increased amount of technology and evidence that criminal inquiries now include. In an age where crime rates are increasing sharply, criminal legal aid is facing another 7.8% budget cut.

Simon Cliff, Law Society

‘Access Denied’ is the Law Society’s LASPO four year review. It emphasises the damage caused by the LASPO cuts, such as the delays caused by high numbers of litigants in person, many of whom were limited in their understanding of the legal processes they were involved in and who often made poor legal decisions due to the lack of access to advice. The gap left by paid legal advisors is then exacerbated by a struggling court system.

The Law Society report makes 25 recommendations and highlights the wider impact of the cuts on society as a whole. Easy savings made previously through early intervention have been lost, children are denied justice as clients are no longer seeing the solicitors who would direct them to mediation, and families denied housing benefit are being evicted or assisted only at a very late stage in proceedings. Even those who are eligible for legal aid often find themselves unrepresented, as they do not know that they are eligible for assistance.

Carol Storer, Legal Aid Practitioners Group

The statistics show that the denial of access to justice under LASPO has been catastrophic. Applications for civil legal aid have fallen from 203,329 in 2009/10 to 116,401 in 2016/17 – a drop of almost 50%. The number of certificates granted has fallen from 168,408 to a low of 92,876 (2014/15) before recovering slightly to 106,962 in 2016/17. Further, there has been abject failure of the ‘safety net’ of Exceptional Case Funding. In contrast to the 5-7,000 cases anticipated, only 2,000 cases have been granted exceptional funding over the last 4 years.

The low rate of remuneration is having a knock on impact on practitioners, with firms such as Fisher Meredith dropping provision of legal aid. Not for profit organisations have also been affected.

With the clear collapse in numbers of people receiving advice and accessing justice, a review of LASPO is desperately needed. The pressure can be kept up if everyone lobbies their MPs – not only those who regularly attend the APPG. Engaging MPs in this debate is vital to allow people to enforce their rights and prevent exploitation by those who can afford legal advice, whether they be landlords, employers, local authorities.

Alison Shea Mohammed, Director of Services at Shelter, Grenfell Tower Fire

The legal ‘family’ should be thanked for its immediate support helping to set up advice clinics around Latimer Road and in other emergency rescue centres in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. However, had legal aid been available to the Grenfell residents groups and other tenants, this disaster may never have happened. Residents had been campaigning on safety issues for years, but without money were not able to access legal advice. Some residents have turned down temporary accommodation offered due to their mistrust of authority, confusion and trauma.

On 28 July 2017 the consultation regarding terms of reference for the Grenfell inquiry closes. The Ministry of Justice needs to clarify whether legal aid calculations for Grenfell residents will include the Government’s charitable lump sum, and also whether undocumented residents will receive indefinite leave to remain so that they can be free to talk about what happened and provide accurate witness statements.  

YLAL would like to thank Tom Hoeksma for preparing this report of the APPG meeting.