The government was put under pressure yesterday by the Conservative chair of the justice select committee to admit that it had gone too far in its cuts to legal aid and made justice “transactional”.
Bob Neill MP urged the Ministry of Justice to “act on the evidence and ensure that we have a better basis for legal funding and access to justice”.
He was speaking in a parliamentary debate on the future of legal aid secured by Labour’s former shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter MP.
Mr Neill and former criminal law barrister Alex Chalk MP – who appeared to hold similar views – were the only Conservatives to speak in the debate, apart from minister Lucy Frazer.
Several opposition MPs made clear their deep concerns about the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and there were widespread calls for more funding of early legal advice.
Mr Neill said he too had concluded that the pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction since, telling Ms Frazer that there was “no shame” in admitting and changing that.
He suggested that because of the increase in litigants in person LASPO had caused, “the net benefit to the public purse is nil – perhaps even negative”.
He said: “There is a clear case that, in attempting to right what was perhaps extravagance in some limited areas, we may have inadvertently done injustice to potential claimants.
“We need to put that right. The first area that I would suggest to the minister is important is funding advice.”
Mr Neill added that Lord Kerr was right in the Supreme Court judgment last year that struck down employment tribunal fees.
“His view, to which I am driven by the evidence, was that regrettably, however good the intentions, the current arrangements under LASPO have adopted too transactional an approach to justice.
“He said that litigation is not merely a private transaction between parties; it also involves a greater public good… There is a public good in access to the courts that goes beyond the right – itself important – of the parties themselves to have access to justice. It is a bigger thing – a point that takes us back to our commitment to the rule of law.”
As well as calling for more funding for early advice, MPs highlighted the impact on the legal profession. Labour MP Melanie Onn said: “In towns such as Grimsby, lots of solicitors have closed down their practices and moved to nearby cities, where they are more assured of getting additional work, or they have completely changed their area of speciality.
“The awful thing is that that fact, which I believe has come about because of the limitations around legal aid, is now being used as part of the evidential base in consultations on future local court viability.”
Ms Frazer said that the current government review of LASPO would be published at the end of the year.
She added: “At various points, an impartial observer might have thought that this government spend a paltry sum, or no money at all, on legal aid but that is not the case at all.
“Legal aid has always been and remains available for the highest priority cases where people are at their most vulnerable: when they are about to be made homeless or to lose their children, or they are accused of a criminal offence that may result in the loss of their liberty.”
She said too that “the point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard”.
Winding up the debate, Mr Slaughter told the minister: “The problem is that many of us do not have confidence that the real damage that LASPO has done so far will be addressed…
“However the money has to be found and however persuasive she has to be with her colleagues in the department and in the Treasury, she knows that the savings achieved so far are way in excess of what was intended or predicted, but she also knows that the collapse in service has been far greater than was provided for.
“That in itself should give the opportunity to make good some of the worst deficiencies that have occurred since then.”
Meanwhile, Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP has unveiled a vision statement for public legal education as part of Justice Week.
The statement contains goals for where PLE might be in 10 years’ time.
- PLE will be supported by a robust evidence base, showing what the need is and what works best.
- PLE will be of high quality, maintained to ensure that it remains accurate and accessible and useful for the people who need it.
- PLE will be universal and reach across all demographics, prioritising children, young adults and vulnerable groups.
- PLE will be scaled up through delivery by the legal community.
- PLE will harness technology and be delivered through innovative methods, both on and offline.
- PLE will be embeded into public services and government departments.
- PLE will be understood as beneficial and utlised by other sectors.
Mr Buckland said: “The new PLE vision statement creates a shared ideal for the legal education community to aspire to. Focusing all on one common goal – to encourage more people to help educate the public about their legal rights and responsibilities.
“Our aim is to create a country where everyone, and every group, is able to access justice. Where nobody, no community, is denied their legal rights.”
In a joint comment, Michael Olatokun of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and James Sandbach of pro bono charity LawWorks said: “The vision published today, developed by a broad range of stakeholders, provides a roadmap to deliver a society in which no-one is denied justice simply through ignorance of the law and the legal system.”
The statement was produced by PLE representatives including those from the Citizenship Foundation, Law Society, Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Magistrates’ Association, Ministry of Justice, Judicial Office, Solicitors Regulation Authority, Citizens Advice, Law for Life, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, Youth Access and Law Centres Federation.