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Bar Council report claims LASPO damages access to justice

Date:18 SEP 2014
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The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has today published a report, based on interviews and a survey of legal practitioners, assessing the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 on the justice system a year after implementation in April 2013.

Since the introduction of LASPO, fewer people have access to free legal representation than since legal aid was introduced in 1949. Areas of law now almost entirely excluded from legal aid include child custody, divorce, employment, education, debt, housing, welfare law and immigration (except asylum cases).

Nicholas Lavender QC, Chairman of the Bar Council said:

'Much of what we feared about LASPO has come to pass. Individuals dealing with life-changing legal issues are denied fair access to justice if they cannot afford it.

A rise in self­-representation is clogging the courts and creating additional costs to the tax payer, free frontline legal advisors are creaking under the strain, pro bono lawyers cannot cope with the demand, and the safety net the government created for providing legal aid in "exceptional cases" is not fit for purpose.'
The increased number of Litigants in Person (LiPs), particularly in the family and civil courts, is placing unprecedented pressures on courts and voluntary services. Nearly 90% of respondents who work with family courts and 70% of respondents from civil courts reported an increase in self-representation. This results in cases not being properly presented, which can lead to extra delays, pressures and costs on the court system, as well as litigants not making points or speaking up when they should, so damaging their case.

More research is needed and the Bar Council urges the Government to collect more data on LiPs in civil and family courts, to simplify the documents which they are required to complete, and to work with voluntary agencies to direct LiPs to any available support.
LASPO: One Year On also highlights that whilst the Ministry of Justice estimated that 5,000-7,000 applications a year would be made for legal aid in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and that the majority of applications would be granted, in reality between April 2013 and March 2014 only 1,519 applications for exceptional funding were made, and a mere 57 granted.

The Bar Council urges the Government to change the criteria for funding cases which now fall outside of legal aid because of LASPO, to include cases of ‘significant wider public interest’ and of ‘overwhelming importance to the client’.

The report also found that LASPO cuts have resulted in more people relying on limited pro bono services. Between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014, applications to the Bar Pro Bono Unit increased by nearly 50%. One frontline free legal service provider said:

'We are seeing a 40% increase, and one month an 80% increase in applications and that is massive. It means a lot more people are going to go unassisted.'
The Bar Council urges the Government to provide funding for initial specialist legal advice and assistance so individuals do not have to wait for their cases to become urgent and complex, by which point they can be impossible to assist. Nicholas Lavender QC said:

'There is a clear consensus between barrister and frontline service provider interviewees that LASPO has had a significant detrimental impact on access to justice.'
The report, LASPO: One Year On is based on research drawn from semi structured interviews with barristers and frontline free legal service providers, and a survey of over 700 legal practitioners (90% of whom are barristers) working on civil, family and legal aid cases. The report was carried out in order to look at the effects of the legislation on access to justice and on the legal profession one year on from the LASPO Act coming into effect.

The full report is available to download here