Back to the future with Justice for All?
This issue of Legal Action marks the first anniversary of the devastating cuts to civil legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. LAG knows that readers are well aware of the impact of these cuts on people who are poor and vulnerable. To an extent, the changes to criminal legal aid are dominating current discourse on access to justice policy, which is understandable given what is at stake. However, assuming that the existing reduced state of civil legal aid and advice services is not something that everyone concerned with access to justice is willing to accept as permanent, we have to decide what we intend to do to change this.
The campaign group Access to Advice held a well-attended conference, ‘Legal justice together’, in Manchester last month. Greater Manchester has seen some severe cutbacks in recent years, including the closure, three years ago, of Manchester Advice, the city council’s in-house welfare rights advice service; this year, Trafford Law Centre® and Wythenshawe Advice and Law Centre shut. Conference delegates were depressed, like many in the world of publicly funded legal services; however, despite the bleak times there was also a mood of resilience among them. Delegates discussed how their organisations had adapted to the LASPO Act cuts. For example, Bolton Citizens Advice Bureau and Rochdale Law Centre have gone down the road of charging for certain services, while several solicitors’ firms have created unbundled and fixed fee services in an attempt to compensate for the shortfall in income caused by the legal aid cuts.
There was discussion among delegates about the limitations of telephone- and internet-based resources for their client groups. LAG believes that the report Face to face legal services and their alternatives: global lessons from the digital revolution
by Professor Alan Paterson and Roger Smith makes a significant contribution to the debate around these issues.1The report was distributed in March 2014 Legal Action. Further copies are available at: www.strath.ac.uk/media/faculties/hass/law/cpls/Face_to_Face.pdf.
We believe that the thrust of the authors’ argument, ie, civil legal aid is a complete mess and the government needs to rethink digital and telephone services along the lines of the Netherlands, America and Australia, is about right. However, we should beware that the digital delivery of some services and other innovations are not misused by policymakers. They might try to portray them as adequate replacements for what has been lost. For some people, a welldesigned electronic application or a fixed fee for a service will work, but for many vulnerable people who have lost entitlement to legal advice they will not.
LAG suggests that there is a need for a broad-based campaign to highlight issues around access to civil justice in the run-up to and beyond the general election in May 2015. Such a campaign could have some core aims around the protection of those who are vulnerable, such as children, people with disabilities and victims of domestic violence, and the defence of human rights and the need for government to develop a strategy to provide legal advice and representation in civil legal matters for areas of law cut from the scope of legal aid.
In 2011, LAG and other organisations formed the Justice for All campaign for changes to the then LASPO Bill. The campaign did much work lobbying in parliament as well as organising protests, including a successful national ‘day of action’ in June 2011. LASPO Bill Part 1 dealing with the provision of legal aid suffered a record 14 defeats in the Lords, which Justice for All played a key part in securing. Justice for All’s main strength was the broad support it enjoyed: members ranged from the trade union Unite to charities such as the Women’s Institute. In addition, campaign members, such as the disability charity Scope, produced well-informed briefings on the impact of the proposed changes on their interest group. Once the LASPO Act was passed, Justice for All’s steering group decided to put the campaign into abeyance. Maybe it is time to revive the Justice for All campaign?
LAG is conscious that pressure groups rather proliferate around legal aid issues; however, we believe that a revived Justice for All campaign could reach out beyond the legal and not for profit advice community and work with existing groups. LAG believes that a conference to bring together the various campaign groups and other allies to agree a statement of aims, and to establish a new steering group, would be a good starting point for the new venture. We would be interested in your views about this idea, so please get in touch!2E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact LAG via Twitter: @LegalActionGrp.