Law Society rules out civil court fee challenge
The Law Society has dropped plans to challenge the government’s decision to hike civil court fees by up to 600 per cent, after considering counsel’s opinion.
A pre-action protocol letter had been issued by the Law Society, along with other representative bodies, earlier this year (see April 2015 Legal Action 4).
In a statement, the Law Society said that it had ‘secured pledges from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to review the increases if they were still in government after the general election.’
news comment: Falling legal aid statistics tell the story of injustice
Legal help in civil law work has dropped by two-thirds since April 2013 when the cuts to scope were brought in. Civil representation has reduced by a third in the same period. It appears that the civil legal aid legal help scheme has settled into a pattern of just above 40,000 cases a quarter. Civil representation is less stable. The government’s statisticians argue it has ‘stabilised’ over the last few quarters, but this does not appear to be the case.
Compared with the same period the previous year, the quarter for October to December 2014 shows a 6 per cent decline in the number of new certificates granted. It seems to LAG that civil representation, although showing some rises in other quarters, is still on a downward trend overall. As was highlighted in Catherine Baksi’s article in last month’s Legal Action, housing firms seem to be avoiding taking on new cases (‘Confusion over eligibility and scope means firms shun housing work’, April 2015 Legal Action 8). The statistics support this contention as they show a 9 per cent decrease in new housing cases compared to the same quarter the previous year.
Family is the largest area of work in civil legal aid and the biggest cut introduced by LASPO was the loss of private law family cases. Victims of domestic violence and child abuse were exempted from this scope cut, provided they could produce evidence to satisfy certain criteria. The statistics show that, since the cut, a third of the 10,455 cases which applied for the exemption have been turned down. Overall, the number of new legal help and civil representation cases in family law has dropped by 3 per cent.
In two of the smaller areas of work, the number of new cases has increased: both immigration (which now mainly means asylum) and mental health have gone up by 8 per cent.
The high level of rejection for the exemptions in private law family cases involving victims of domestic violence and child abuse is of deep concern. All the evidence from practitioners and campaign groups, such as Rights of Women (RoW), indicate that many more victims of domestic violence are not applying for exemptions. RoW’s recent research showed that 38 per cent of the women who took part in its survey did not have the evidence necessary to apply for legal aid.
There are two main action points which should be drawn from these statistics. First, LAG, the representative bodies and other groups concerned about access to justice policy must encourage the take-up of the legal aid services which remain in scope. The second and most important priority is to highlight the damage that the loss of these services has had on the public, particularly vulnerable groups, as the new government has to be persuaded that the LASPO scope changes cannot be allowed to stand.