“The government keeps on making changes to legal aid and the LAA is constantly refining its processes.”
What’s the best strap line that could be used for the government’s role in legal aid? In the immortal words of Vic and Bob (Bob being a former trainee/lawyer in a legal aid firm): ‘You wouldn’t let it lie.’ The government keeps on making changes – some Treasury-led and some ideology-led. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) constantly refines its contracting process and other processes that impact on the system. So here’s a summary of where we are.
Are people getting the help they need?
The Legal aid statistics in England and Wales, October to December 2016
(Ministry of Justice (MoJ)/LAA, 30 March 2017) would suggest not. In the latest quarter (ie October to December 2016), legal help new matter starts were 14 per cent lower than in the same period of 2015 (page 22, figure 12 shows the longer-term trends). This can broadly be categorised as early advice. However, in civil representation, the number of certificates granted increased by five per cent in the latest quarter compared with the same quarter of the previous year. The number of mediation assessments in the latest quarter was seven per cent down compared with the same period in 2015 and starts were down by 14 per cent over the same period.
There were 441 applications for exceptional case funding (ECF) received in the latest quarter. As at 28 February 2017, 413 of those had been determined, 58 per cent of which were granted. The significance of this is that when the ECF scheme was brought in, it was indicated that about 6,000 cases a year would be within it. In fact, even after litigation to extend how the scheme is run, the number of cases – the safety net – is far lower than anticipated.
Contracts – civil and crime
The LAA is keen to work with legal aid providers to ensure its processes run as smoothly as they can and identify any areas of mutual benefit.
Complexity of civil legal aid
Representative bodies, including LAPG, are working with the LAA to try to simplify processes. The LAA has demonstrated it is keen to work with legal aid providers to ensure its processes run as smoothly as they can and identify any areas of mutual benefit. A group named the Provider Efficiency Team (PET) was established in October, bringing together civil representative groups and LAA staff to work through problems and issues. The aim is to identify streamlined solutions that continue to offer the level of assurance needed in the LAA carrying out its duties. The initial focus of the group has been on family cases and it is currently looking at the number of interactions between providers and the LAA during the lifetime of a case and the requirements around evidence of means.
A review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was announced on 17 January 2017 and a team at the MoJ has been working on it. It will be put on hold in light of the general election but we must hope it will be reinstated by the next government (see page 3
of this issue).
Green paper on legal support
Before the general election announcment, Sir Oliver Heald QC MP had announced a green paper on legal support, planned to be published next year. He said:
Legal aid is a fundamental part of our justice system. We must ensure it is available for the individuals who need it, sustainable for the lawyers who provide it, and affordable for the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it.
The government’s reform programme will deliver a justice system that is more accessible to the public. It aims to support people in resolving their disputes using simpler, modern procedures
(Hansard HC Written Question 64609, 28 February 2017