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Flawed legal aid system leaves ‘poorer and vulnerable clients denied assistance’

Date:21 MAR 2018
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The Law Society has revealed that lower income families in England and Wales are being denied legal aid, meaning that they are excluded from funded aid to help fight eviction, severe housing disrepair and other legal issues. The findings are contained within the ‘Priced out of Justice?’ report commissioned by the Law Society and produced by Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University.

Key findings within the report include:

  • the means testing of legal aid is set at a level that requires many people on low incomes to make contributions to legal costs that they could not afford while maintaining a socially acceptable standard of living – typically, these families have disposable incomes 10-30% too low to afford a minimum budget; and
  • even those below the disposable income limit, while eligible for legal aid, are required to contribute to legal costs, unless their income is ‘extremely low’

The Society has called for the Government to restore the means test to its 2010 ‘real terms’ level, and to conduct a review to consider what further changes are necessary to address the problems.

Law Society president Joe Egan said:

‘No-one in modern society should have to choose between accessing the justice system and a minimum living standard.

The financial eligibility test for civil legal aid is disqualifying people from receiving badly-needed legal advice and representation, even though they are already below the poverty line.

This report is hard evidence that people with less income than they need, some below the poverty line, are unable to get the help that they need through legal aid in order to access justice.

The position has been getting progressively worse, because the means test thresholds have been frozen since 2010, while the cost of living, of course, has not. Action is long overdue.’

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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.’

Minnoch adds:

‘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.’