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Bar Council reveals preliminary findings of its impact of LASPO survey

Date:12 JUL 2014
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Journals Manager + Online Editor
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has today presented its preliminary findings from a major survey conducted to assess the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012.

The survey, launched online on 1 April 2014, was undertaken by the Bar Council, with the assistance of Professor Graham Cookson from The University of Surrey, 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.

In addition to looking at the impact on access to justice, the survey addressed the impact on different aspects of a barrister’s practice, including case volume, fee income and security, as well as career development. It covered reforms to civil and family legal aid, as well as the Jackson reforms to civil litigation funding implemented through LASPO.

A total of 716 people responded to the survey, of which nearly 90% of respondents were barristers.

A high proportion of respondents, across different practice areas, felt that LASPO had impacted on access to justice. An overwhelming 80% of respondents who worked in the family courts, and 64% of respondents who worked in civil courts reported an increase in court delays since the implementation of LASPO.

Respondents believed there was a significant rise in the number of litigants-in-person, with 88% of respondents who worked within family courts and 70% of respondents from civil courts reporting an increase in self-representation.

The findings also revealed 61% of all respondents noted an increase in the number of lay clients saying they had difficulty accessing legal advice and representation. Similarly, 60% of respondents reported an increase in the number of lay clients requesting free advice and representation.

The majority of barrister respondents reported that LASPO had partially or significantly affected the Bar in their practice area. An overwhelming 81% of respondents who undertook family legal aid work reported impacts, followed by 79% of respondents who undertook civil litigation work, and 70% of respondents who undertook civil legal aid work.

For case volumes, a significant 72% of respondents who undertook family legal aid work reported a decrease in case work. This was followed by 60% of respondents who undertook civil legal aid work, and 45% of respondents involved in civil litigation work who also reported a decline.

In terms of fee income, 69% of respondents who worked as family legal aid practitioners reported a decline in fee income. This was followed by 62% of respondents who worked as civil legal aid practitioners, and 53% of respondents who worked as civil litigation practitioners.

Non-traditional funding arrangements were also highlighted, with 27% of barrister respondents reporting a general increase in interest in these arrangements, including fixed fees, deferred payment, pro bono assessment of risk, litigation funding, and Damages-Based Agreements (DBAs).

Some 42% of respondents undertaking civil litigation work reported experiencing issues with the transition from old-style conditional fee agreements (CFAs) to post-Jackson CFAs.

While the majority of practitioner respondents had no immediate plans to leave the Bar, a significant minority were considering a move to judicial or other positions before 2015. Many respondents indicated that they are actively considering whether they have a long-term future at the Bar, and that the effects of LASPO had caused them to think about the viability of their career at the Bar.

Nicholas Lavender QC, Chairman of the Bar, said:

'Last year LASPO removed legal aid altogether from many family and civil law disputes. These changes pose a significant threat to effective access to justice for some of the most vulnerable members of society, as well as a threat to the viability of the publicly-funded Bar.

This research project was undertaken to provide evidence from which we can better understand and explain the trends which we are beginning to see across civil and family work. The results will help to guide the formulation of policy and provide some strong messages to Government, as we approach the General Election, about how LASPO has affected access to justice, especially on those who are most vulnerable.

Unsurprisingly, the preliminary results from the survey confirm the concerns we raised with the Government some time ago: a significant increase in litigants-in-person, more delays in court, and growing difficulty for individuals in accessing legal advice and representation.

It may be too early to understand the full impact of the changes but it is not too early to look at options for improving the current situation.

These include simplifying court processes to ensure that litigants-in-person are able to fulfil the most basic administrative requirements of the court process, and significantly increasing advertising and promotion of what legal aid services remain available and how they can be accessed.

There needs to be a comprehensive post-implementation review of LASPO, together with an assessment of the effects of the combination of changes that are occurring in civil and family justice. Such a review would also help to identify the (no doubt, unintended) consequences of policy change and the effects of cost shifting, which may require further attention.

The Bar Council is ready to work with policy makers to mitigate the harmful effects of LASPO.'