The justice secretary said yesterday that innovation and technology, rather than significant increases in legal aid spending, are the way to improve access to justice.
Speaking to MPs in the wake of publication of the government’s long-awaited post-implementation review of LASPO, David Gauke said a new £5m innovation fund would help ensure that “wherever you are in the UK you can access justice”.
Along with this, the Legal Support Action Plan doubled funding to support litigants-in-person (LiPs) to £3m for the next two years and said the legal aid means test would be reviewed.
In the plan, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said its £5m fund would explore “new ways in which legal support and advice can be delivered remotely through digital means”, “ways in which questions about a legal problem and legal support itself can be broken down” and “ways in which legal support can be delivered to litigants in person”.
The MoJ was, however, vague about specific technology or innovative projects it wanted to invest in, talking merely of supporting “a range of initiatives to ensure they get off the ground and encourage more people to consider these problems”.
It mentioned that the government had recently provided the Solicitors Regulation Authority with £700,000 “to support and develop artificial intelligence in the legal services sector”.
The MoJ said a Legal Support Advisory Network would be set up “to bring together organisations from the tech and legal sectors with other experts from across the field to generate more productive conversations and break down the barriers”.
The justice secretary said the test for access to justice should not be “legal aid as it has been” and it was time to “embrace technology and innovation and do things differently”.
Labour MPs commented on the limited scale of yesterday’s announcements, which included restoring face-to-face advice in discrimination, debt and special educational needs cases and piloting expanded face-to-face advice for social welfare law.
One Labour MP said the total value of the government’s new measures amounted to around 2% of the money taken out of the legal aid budget by LASPO.
Mr Gauke’s Labour shadow, Richard Burgon MP, asked: “Does he really think a little investment in Skype services is the way to restore access to justice?”
He later said in a tweet: “This is too little, too late. The government has wasted two years investigating the impact of its own legal aid cuts only to respond with no credible plan to end the suffering they have caused.
“The Tories have slashed legal aid budgets by hundreds of millions of pounds and the new measures outlined today are just more tinkering at the edges.”
However, Mr Gauke said there was a consensus between the two main parties that “what happened in the past we cannot return to” and “limited resources” had to be directed in the most proportionate way.
Bob Neill, chair of the justice select committee, said some people were concerned that given that the LASPO review “had taken some time”, a further review of the means test may delay other changes. Otherwise he welcomed the review as “substantial and thoughtful”.
The Law Society said there was “much to be welcomed” in the government’s response to its review, highlighting extending the scope of legal aid to include special guardianship orders in private family law cases and migrant children in non-asylum immigration cases.
However the Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) were more sceptical.
Richard Atkins QC, chair of the Bar Council, said the £8m for innovation and LiPs was “but a drop in the ocean given the impact LASPO has had on restricting individuals’ access to justice”.
He went on: “We fully understand that the MoJ is constrained by budgetary limits, but this review provides clear evidence that the Treasury must find a way to properly fund the justice system and reverse a decade of cuts.”
Simon Garrod, policy director at CILEx, added: “We are concerned that this report has not laid the groundwork needed to make an effective case for a meaningful reinstatement of funding to the Treasury.
“Instead it is a placeholder ahead of the spending review later this year, containing only vague promises of reviews and identifying the need for the gathering of further evidence.
“The measures it proposes only paper over the cracks without offering the systemic solution we need. We live in hope that the Treasury will address this crisis more meaningfully than the Ministry of Justice has.”