Update on the All-Party Group on Legal Aid
Eleanor Sanders, project worker to the All-Party Group (APG) on Legal Aid, writes:
The APG held its latest meeting on 3 September 2014 to consider ‘Where to turn now for legal advice? Assisting constituents after the cuts to legal aid’. The meeting took the form of a drop-in breakfast briefing and was a good opportunity for MPs and peers to meet representatives from across the legal aid sector to discuss their concerns and consider the future of advice provision. A key message was the need for a genuine political impetus to improve the system.
Helping constituents after the cuts
The meeting was addressed by an excellent panel of speakers who focused on the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 and possible solutions to the advice deficit caused by the legal aid cuts. Karl Turner MP, chairperson of the APG, commented that his constituents found that they had nowhere to turn for help with their legal problems. He added that MPs were not best-placed to offer individuals specialised legal advice.
Kate Green MP called the situation post the LASPO Act an ‘absolute disgrace’ which had ‘shut out the poorest and most disadvantaged’ from accessing legal assistance. She listed the services in her area that had either closed or had to cut back vital (and unreplaced) advice provision.
Andy Slaughter MP said that currently the government was reaping the problems sown by the LASPO Act. Following the next general election in May 2015, the incoming administration would face the difficult task of ‘restoring a system of access to justice that would be worthy of the name’.
Clients in search of legal advice
Two more speakers then offered valuable insights from their own experience of assisting clients. Jenny Beck, co-chairperson of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and director of family law, head of professional practice at Co-operative Legal Services, spoke of the struggle faced by clients trying to get help and by those trying to assist them.
Ruth Hayes, director of Islington Law Centre® and vice-chairperson of the Law Centres Network, gave a vivid account of the desperation felt by individuals who cannot get support. She reported that some Law Centre clients had not eaten for days and were getting by without a regular income; many felt that they were living precarious lives, only a few steps away from losing everything and becoming homeless.
Lord Low discussed the shape a reformed system might take. He outlined the recommendations of the report from the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support. The key points were that there should be a minister with cross-departmental responsibility for overseeing a new strategy for advice on social welfare law, and that funding should be sought not just from government, but from diverse, and perhaps innovative, sources such as a levy on payday loan companies.