All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid: Where to turn now for legal advice? Assisting constituents after the cuts to legal aid
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid met on 3 September 2014 to discuss the effect of cuts to legal aid on access to legal advice. The APPG is a group of MPs and peers who meet regularly in Parliament to discuss and debate legal aid issues. It is organised jointly by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) and Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
The meeting was chaired by Karl Turner, the Labour MP for East Hull, who spoke of the problems he is facing in his constituency surgery because his options for referring his constituents onwards are limited. Other MPs, including Kate Green (Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston) and Andy Slaughter (Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister), echoed that concern.
Andy Slaughter spoke of the challenge for the next government, which will need to identify its public spending priorities. If Labour wins the general election, it will consider what steps can be taken immediately but also develop a long-term strategy to restore a system of access to justice which is worthy of this country. It will be for practitioners to lobby politicians on what the priorities should be.
Jenny Beck, co-chair of LAPG, warned that people who are eligible for legal aid are not receiving the advice and support they are entitled to because they are not able to gather the necessary evidence to support their applications for legal aid. Jenny also spoke about her experience in the context of family law and the potential medium and long-term effect of legal aid cuts on individuals and the justice system as a whole.
Ruth Hayes, co-chair of the Law Centres Network and Director of the Islington Law Centre, reported that the demand for advice is increasing, but also changing in its nature as practices and behaviours change. She cautioned that a lack of understanding about the allocation of resources can undermine community cohesion and called for a proper strategy for publicly funded legal advice to restore faith in the rule of law.
The Low Commission’s report on the area of social welfare law, ‘Tackling the Advice Deficit’, was universally welcomed. Lord Low set out some of the key recommendations of the report, including:
- a national strategy for advice and legal support for 2015 – 2020;
- creation of new, cross-departmental ministerial post, to oversee implementation of advice and legal support strategy;
- a network of local authority commissioned legal advice and support plans covering the whole country; and
- a £100m implementation fund with half the money coming from central government, and half raised from other sources, including a levy on payday loan companies .
Lord Low spoke of the twin problems of rising demand for advice and a reduction in the availability of advice, which are reinforcing one another. The Low Commission is very keen that a holistic view of the system should be taken and to stress the importance of early intervention, as the absence of legal advice means that problems escalate. The essential message of the report was that the cuts to legal aid have made this problem worse and the next government is going to have to address that problem. Lord Low called for parties to adopt the recommendations of the Low Commission report in their general election manifestos.
YLAL will update members with details of the next meeting of the APPG on Legal Aid when arrangements are finalised.