Human Rights Committee told urgent action required on advice deserts
Marc Bloomfield
Giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights' Human Rights: Attitudes to Enforcement Inquiry this week, LAG’s director, Steve Hynes (pictured), said there is provision for ‘legal aid in statute but in reality there are not enough firms providing legal aid. Many firms have withdrawn from legal aid as it's not competitive for them’. He called on the government to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK’s law and human rights programme director, told the committee that in conducting research published in the report, Cuts that hurt: the impact of legal aid cuts in England on access to justice (October 2016), the organisation found there were areas of the country such as Devon and Cornwall that had become ‘advice deserts’. She said that when carrying out the research, Amnesty came across a woman who could not get assistance because the one firm that undertook private law family work in her area was unable to take on her case due to a conflict of interest. Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, also argued that there was no legal aid provision left in large areas of the country and gave the example of South West London Law Centres, which could only take on one in four of the 11,000 referrals it received last year.
The committee asked Kamena Dorling, head of policy and programmes at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, to give examples of the sorts of cases now no longer covered by legal aid and the impact that this was having on children. Dorling said the removal of immigration advice from legal aid meant undocumented children were facing ‘destitution and homelessness’. She added that it was estimated that there were over 120,000 such cases a year and that while Coram’s charitable funding paid for advice for these children, the service can only deal with a few hundred cases a year, which is ‘a drop in the ocean’.
The committee’s chair, Harriet Harman MP, asked Hynes for an estimate of the percentage of the population who were excluded from receiving civil legal advice through a lack of cash. He said it might well be around 50 per cent or more. In response, Harman commented: ‘For at least half of the population, then, the idea of enforcing a breach of human rights law, if they were unfortunate [enough] to experience it, is for the birds.’
One of the problems of which the committee members were aware was the increased bureaucracy for legal aid providers dealing with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). Hynes outlined the problems with the client and cost management system (CCMS), which he described as ‘an absolute disaster’, and warned that it was one of the reasons firms were discouraged from taking on legal aid cases. He also described the market failure that led to the LAA’s recent decision to abandon the discrimination and education law tender round (see ‘Civil legal advice education and discrimination tenders abandoned’).
The evidence session concluded with Logan making some powerful points on the ‘skewed and distorted narrative’ about human rights from some sections of the media and the ‘persistent attacks on human rights’ by some politicians. She cited Amnesty research which showed that 77 per cent of people had not been aware that the Hillsborough second inquest had only been secured through the use of human rights law. The reaction from ordinary people when they were told this was positive, she said, as until then they had been under the impression that human rights law was ‘only [for] terrorists and criminals’. She stressed the need for the wider public to understand that human rights law is about their rights and freedoms.

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