Lord Bach: Civil Legal Aid - a disaster area?
Has there ever been a more disastrous piece of legislation than the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO)?
Part 1 of LASPO has been in force for two years. In that time, many of our most vulnerable citizens have been unable to receive legal advice and assistance to help them with problems in areas of housing, debt, employment, immigration, and welfare benefits. Not only have they been deprived access to justice, but these problems are now being allowed the opportunity to escalate leading to possible greater costs when the state has to intervene. On top of this, eleven law centres have had to close, making it even more difficult for the poorest to get justice, and providers of social welfare law have declined in numbers as without legal aid both law centres and solicitors firms have been deprived of a large amount of income.
Two recent reports – one from the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, the other from the Public Accounts Committee – have carefully described the failings of the LASPO Act in convincing terms. The government is yet to indicate when it will respond to these reports. This was legislation which even the Permanent Secretary at Ministry of Justice conceded began without the usual preliminary research being done. It was just a way to save money and damn the consequences. Unfortunately the consequences are deadly serious for citizens, for providers and not least for the reputation of the English legal system.
It is time for a thorough review. My question in the Lords today will urge Ministers to instigate this at once. The ‘exceptional cases’ provision which was supposed to pick up cases that should receive legal aid but couldn’t because of the Act has failed miserably. The MoJ estimate regarding how many exceptional cases there would be has proved laughably high.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that in those few areas where legal aid is still available under the Act, the take-up has been decreasing.
This is nothing to do with lack of demand for advice. But with people just not knowing that support is still available. The MoJ overall savings in this field have also exceeded expectation. Surely it is time to put some of that money back into helping people at a difficult time in their lives?
Social Welfare Law has gone a long way to being destroyed. It is now time for the government to take stock and begin to restore what was only a few years ago one of the jewels in the crown of English Justice.