Karen Buck MP: Six years on from LASPO, it is clear the justice system is in crisis
The Ministry of Justice has had the highest cuts of any department –40%- and the impact of cuts on this scale is simply unsustainable, says Karen Buck MP.
“Access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law. We are concerned that the reforms to legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) have made access to justice more difficult for many, for whom it is simply unaffordable” So said the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights in our report into 'Enforcing Human Rights', published just as Parliament was rising for the summer. On the day we return, I will be pressing the Ministry of Justice to complete and act on their review of LASPO as a matter of urgency, before yet more damage is done (The MOJ LASPO Review is taking evidence until the end of this month and aims to report to the Minister by end of the year).
Six years on from LASPO, it is clear the system is in crisis. The MoJ has had the highest cuts of any department –40%- and the impact of cuts on this scale is simply unsustainable. The review of the changes must provide answers- not rhetorical ones, but practical solutions- which have been described not just in ‘Enforcing Human Rights’ but in expert report after expert report, from the Bach review to the Low Commission and in evidence from the front line of civil and criminal law.
The latest statistics relating to the provision of Legal Aid confirm the gravity of the situation. Total Legal Aid expenditure has fallen by £600m since 2013. The number of Legal Help and controlled legal representation claims submitted dropped from 188,643 to 92, 124- in other words, they halved. Mediation starts more than halved. And the number of providers in the fields of both criminal and civil law has also plunged, by 800 in crime, and 1200 in civil. So when our report looked at the impact of LASPO on access to justice, it is no wonder that concerns about ‘advice deserts’- i.e. parts of the country where advice and representation are close to non-existent, feature strongly. And only in the last few days we have heard that Cornwall has become the latest area to be without legal aid services.
In summary, legal aid is no longer available for many of those who need it, even those eligible for help find it hard to access it and major gaps in service are not being addressed. And as is so often the case, it is the most disadvantaged and disempowered who bear the burden. To take just one group, important research by the mental health charity MIND has found that half of the people facing legal problems removed from the scope of legal aid through the LASPO Act have mental health problems.
Whole areas of help have been removed from scope, legal aid was removed from most areas of early advice, and the failure to update the means test threshold with inflation means people who are living well below the Minimum Income Standard are ineligible for legal aid and some people below the ‘poverty line’ remain liable for contributions they cannot afford.
Exceptional Case Funding, introduced in LASPO and intended as a financial safety valve for more complex cases, was expected to support up to 7,000 cases per year but has fallen far, far short. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have both expressed fears that barriers are being put in the way of people seeking help to tackle discrimination and rights-based cases. Meanwhile, not only are many people unable to get advice or get cases to court but the court system itself is in crisis as a result of cuts to HMCTS and growth in the number of Litigants in Person.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights also heard compelling evidence about the extent to which pressures caused by the reforms to legal aid are impacting on legal aid professionals. By damaging morale and undermining the legal profession’s ability to undertake legal aid work, access to justice, the rule of law and enforcement of human rights in the UK are further undermined. In the area of criminal law, for example, data suggests that in just 5 to 10 years’ time there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, leaving many in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.
Almost every aspect of this debacle was predicted and objected to at the time – hence the high number of defeats in the Lords, but only minor (albeit welcome) adjustments have been made.
There is an opportunity in this review to learn from what has gone wrong and to put it right and the moment must be seized before it is too late.”
Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North.
PoliticsHome Member, Mind, have responded to Karen Buck saying 'Mind has raised its concerns with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the experiences of people with mental health problems are placed at the centre of their review of the legislation.' You can read the full response here.