A report published today (19 July) by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights says ‘legal aid deserts’ mean that people are finding it impossible to enforce their human rights.
Harriet Harman MP, the chair of the committee, which draws its membership from both the Lords and the Commons, said in a press statement
that for ‘rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced’ and that there needs to be equal access to good quality ‘legal information and advice’ to achieve this. The report, Enforcing human rights
(HC 669, HL Paper 171) concludes that ‘there is a pressing need for a much wider evaluation of the broader landscape of advice, support and means of resolution for legal problems …’
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) comes under fire in the report, which says the legislation ‘has had deleterious and discriminatory effects on particular groups … including disabled people, women, children and migrants’ (para 29). Changes to the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid are cited as having a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups. Nicola Mackintosh of Mackintosh Law gave evidence to the committee on this issue, telling them that taking into account the value of a person’s house as part of the legal aid means test was ‘not realistic’ as it ‘presupposes’ an applicant for legal aid can raise money against the value of their house to contribute to the costs of their case (para 31). The committee is calling on the government to look again at the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid.
In a key finding the report states: ‘The fall in legal aid supply over the past three decades has led to the phenomenon of so-called “legal aid deserts”- geographical areas where legal aid advice is now unavailable in certain areas of law’ (para 80). The report includes statistics and other evidence, which chart the decline in the number of firms and not-for-profit agencies providing legal aid in recent years. It cites evidence from the National Audit Office
, which calculated that in a 13-year period from 1998/99 to 2011 there was a 34 per cent reduction in real terms in civil legal aid fees (see para 81).
LAG’s director, Steve Hynes, was among the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee earlier in the year. The report quotes him on the impact of excessive bureaucracy on legal aid providers, which he believes is causing many firms and other providers to quit legal aid work. Hynes told the committee that CCMS (client and cost management system), the Legal Aid Agency’s system for administering legal aid, ‘is an absolute disaster’ from the providers’ point of view (para 82). The committee concluded that it shared the concerns ‘of many of our witnesses that the pressures caused by the reforms to legal aid are having a severe impact on legal aid professionals, damaging morale and undermining the legal profession’s ability to undertake legal aid work … ’ (para 83).
Other recommendations in the report include non-means-tested legal support for families in inquest proceedings, reform of the exceptional case funding scheme, and a further review around the evidential requirements for victims of domestic violence to qualify for legal aid.