Chris Minnoch, operations director at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says that limited access to legal aid funding is ‘leaving legal and related problems unresolved, creating chaos within the court system and generating significant costs for other public services’. Solicitor-advocate and partner at Dawson Cornwell, Zoë Fleetwood, agrees that a ‘more realistic means tests needs to be reinstated’.
Fleetwood says that the flawed system means clients who desperately need representation are ‘sadly’ turned away:
‘These are families who often are assessed at only a few pounds over the very low disposable income limits.
These are families who are working and in receipt of tax credits, and so accessing other benefits. Families who need to ensure children’s rights are met. Without legal representation family justice works slower, a burden is transferred onto the court, rights to a fair trial and to a family life are not upheld. In many cases justice is simply not accessed at all, leaving vulnerable children exposed to harm.’
Minnoch notes that the Law Society findings demonstrate ‘one failing aspect of a flawed legal aid system’:
‘The Government introduced significant cuts to the scope of legal aid in 2013, meaning that large areas of family law, housing issues, welfare benefits, debt, employment and immigration no longer attracted legal aid funding.
However, the report illustrates that even when a legal problem is still in scope, and therefore deemed by the Government to be important enough to warrant state-funded advice, many poorer and often vulnerable clients are still denied assistance.
The number of people able to access the civil legal aid scheme has plummeted by hundreds of thousands per year since 2012, leaving legal and related problems unresolved, creating chaos within the court system and generating significant costs for other public services.’
Fleetwood says that a ‘more realistic means test needs to be reinstated’:
‘I also eagerly await the Government’s long overdue wholesale review of the effects of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Not only is access to justice denied through an unrealistically lows means test but also through unworkable limits in terms of scope of funding.’
‘The means test and requirement to make contributions, combined with onerous evidence requirements, create administrative barriers that prevent those needing legal help from receiving it.
We urge the Government to rethink the means test and other impediments to justice as they conduct their current review of the legal aid system.’