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Urgent action needed on legal advice ‘deserts’

Date:20 JUL 2018
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MPs and Peers have highlighted the paucity of legal aid access in England and Wales and called for ‘urgent’ action to tackle the lack of legal advice available for people on low incomes.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed ‘grave concerns for access to justice, the rule of law, and enforcement of human rights in the UK’, in a detailed report published this week, Enforcing human rights. They warned that large areas of the country have become ‘legal aid deserts’ as lawyers can no longer afford to provide these services to clients.

The Government is currently reviewing LASPO (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), which cut legal aid from large areas of civil and family law in April 2013. 
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JCHR recommendations include:
  • undertaking a wider review of the broader landscape of advice, support and means of resolution for legal problems to assess how individuals faced with a breach of their human rights can be better served, alongside the current review of legal aid reform;
  • reviewing the financial eligibility criteria of legal aid reforms, with a view to widening access to a larger proportion of the population;
  • considering whether immigration cases engaging Art 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights can be brought within the scope of civil legal aid;
  • ensuring ministers are restrained in their reaction to court judgments to uphold the importance of a ‘robustly independent judiciary’; and
  • ensuring media organisations and commentators are accurate in reporting of human rights cases.
Harriet Harman, committee chair, said the Government must act urgently to address the ‘erosion of enforcement mechanisms’ which has occurred because of a lack of access of justice, and a lack of understanding of the importance of human rights and the rule of law.

Zoë Fleetwood, solicitor-advocate at Dawson Cornwell, agrees that legal aid deserts have appeared:

‘We get many calls from people seeking legal aid who have called many firms. The exceptional funding has not met its intended aim.

The Government promised exceptional funding would make sure legal aid was still available to the most vulnerable. However, in the first two years, exceptional funding applications were rejected wholesale. A few are now permitted, but not enough, as many vulnerable members of the public simply do not have access to justice.’
Fleetwood highlights that the review must ‘desperately look at how the limiting of scope has hit the public hard’: 

‘Special guardianship applications that are free standing – as opposed to brought in care proceedings – should be put back in scope’.
Nancy Collins, civil liberties solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen says that although the Government review is ‘positive’, it must not continue in the way that many other consultations on access to justice have, where the ‘evidence of appalling difficulties faced by families are ignored or disregarded’:

‘Any family should be afforded legal help at an inquest on a non-means tested basis. Solicitors should not have to put newly bereaved and often deeply traumatised and vulnerable families through the pressure and indignity of intense and onerous financial scrutiny at the worst time of their lives as they do now.’