news comment:Justice is priceless but legal aid reforms need to be costed
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s Manifesto for Legal Aid calls for changes to be made to the legal aid system to improve access to justice, especially for vulnerable groups. It contains many good ideas, which now need to be costed.
LAPG is requesting an immediate review of the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. It argues, in common with LAG and other campaign groups, that the cuts to the scope of legal aid have had a knock-on impact on ‘society and the public purse, particularly the courts’. The manifesto calls on the government to make amendments to the act, restoring lega aid for vulnerable groups such as children and disabled people.
Other reforms include abolishing the mandatory telephone gateway as the only method of accessing civil legal aid for certain categories of law, adjustments to the means test for legal aid and reforms to the exceptional funding system. The manifesto also recommends the implementation of the Low Commission’s findings on social welfare law, stating that these, together with LAPG’s proposals for the legal aid system, could ‘form the basis for rebuilding the legal advice scheme in social welfare law’.
The final chapter in the manifesto outlines 14 areas of law in which it is argued there needs to be a full or partial restoration of the scope of legal aid, such as prison law and clinical negligence. This is a shopping list which is likely to run into tens of millions of pounds, but nowhere near the £350m plus which has been cut from the system.
In a move which will be popular with its members, LAPG suggests the creation of an independent body to review pay for legal aid work. LAPG argues that pay rates should be restored to 2011 levels pending the results of this independent review, which would look at the evidence around the cost drivers in the system, as well as examining ‘how the system can work better for clients and for the public overall’.
LAG supports the manifesto as we believe it contains good, sensible suggestions which reflect the concerns expressed by many, including most recently by the Justice Committee, that the cutbacks in civil legal aid are having a devastating impact on access to justice for vulnerable groups. However, the politicians are likely to focus on the cost of the proposals and where they would get the money from to implement them.
What LAG suggests is any legal aid review needs to go beyond the sort of internal civil servant-led post-election study which happened after the last election. Perhaps we need a task force which brings in outside experts to conduct both an economic cost/benefit analysis of the impact of civil legal aid cuts across government departments and a forensic study of the legal aid budget, including looking at the current under-spend in detail. This work would provide the financial flesh on the policy bones of the LAPG and other similar documents. However, there would still be difficult choices to be made, as whoever is in power after the election is unlikely to pay for everything LAPG and other interest groups, including LAG, are asking for.