Speakers at All-Party Parliamentary Group highlight deserts and imbalances in civil legal aid
A meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid was held on 11 September. The event focused on human rights, especially the impact of growing advice deserts and wide imbalances in the provision of civil legal aid.
Chaired by Karen Buck MP, the meeting heard from guest speaker Harriet Harman MP, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). Harman emphasised the serious problems people have in accessing justice to enforce their human rights. The event was highly topical as the government review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’s (LASPO’s) impact is nearing the end of its call for evidence and top officials from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) were present to hear concerns and proposals first hand.
Harman declared that ‘human rights are not worth the paper they are written on if they are not enforceable’. Dwindling access to legal aid is making enforcing human rights far more difficult. She told the meeting that in 1979, 77 per cent of the population were eligible for legal aid, while now this figure is only around 25 per cent, and the areas of law for which people can get advice have also been cut. ‘Access to legal advice is about equality,’ she emphasised, and the ‘law is supposed to be there for everyone’, but so often people who don’t have funds can’t access it effectively.
Her committee’s report, Enforcing human rights. Tenth report of session 2017–19
(HC 669/HL Paper 171, 19 July 2018), had scrutinised the availability of legal aid, demonstrating how many gaps now exist because of advice deserts and reduced eligibility. Advice deserts have a double edge, she added: not only are there few or no legal aid services, but lawyers cease to practise through legal aid in these areas too. The impact is then felt across a spectrum – from failure to intervene early in law and advice issues, to inadequacy of individual representation at inquests and inquiries. Shrinking numbers of Law Centres have compounded the problem, an issue that in part stems from local authority funding cuts. Buck picked this up, and proposed that MoJ officials meet local authority bodies to assess this during the LASPO review.
Conservative MP and JCHR member, Jeremy Lefroy, echoed Harman’s themes, highlighting the ‘importance of legal aid in the grand scheme of things’, and reiterating concerns on representation issues. He added poignant casework examples from his constituency of the impact of the non-availability of legal aid.
Fiona Rutherford, deputy director of legal aid policy at the MoJ, updated the meeting on the post-implementation review of LASPO. Evidence-gathering would conclude in September, and findings would be published by the year end, framed around the objectives of LASPO. She said four important issues had emerged to date: that the earlier advice is given, the better; the increase in litigants in person; the difficulty in recruiting a new generation of legal aid lawyers; and gaps in legal aid provision. The report would identify other key areas that should be further explored.
Libby McVeigh, director of programmes at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), hoped the APPG event would be the start of close working with the commission, whose priority is to ‘ensure systems are in place to allow access to justice’. Its recent research with the University of Liverpool (reported in The impact of LASPO on routes to justice
, 4 September 2018) had shown key areas to address.