“LASPO has been hugely detrimental: we urge the government to take urgent steps to repair the justice system.”
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Marc Bloomfield
Call it the optimism of youth – what else is a group called Young Legal Aid Lawyers for? – but it feels like a consensus is building on legal aid. With the call for evidence for the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) now closed (at the end of September), it is hard to find anyone outside government who does not think positive reform of legal aid is needed.
On 20 September, the former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve MP delivered a lecture on the rule of law in which he said: ‘We have gone through a process of systematic downgrading of the importance of access to justice,’ describing this as ‘the most immediate and obvious challenge to the rule of law’.1Michael Cross, ‘Corruption perception a threat to rule of law, says Grieve’, Law Society Gazette, 20 September 2018.
The following week, in a speech given in Chicago, the Supreme Court justice Lord Wilson said: ‘In pursuit of its economic policy the UK government has recently felt the need to dismantle much of our precious system of legal aid,’ informing his audience that ‘[a]ccess to justice is under threat in the UK’.2Our human rights: a joint effort?, the Howard J Trienens Lecture, Northwestern University, Chicago, 25 September 2018.
As chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP has been outspoken on the subject of legal aid, as well as on disclosure in criminal cases. Speaking at a fringe event hosted by Irwin Mitchell at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham,3‘Rethinking access to justice – risks and opportunities from the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid (LASPO) review’, 2 October 2018, organised by LawWorks, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pro Bono and Public Legal Education and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid. Neill said that ‘following the evidence’, his belief is that the coalition government ‘went too far’ and that he regrets voting for LASPO.
Readers of Legal Action will no doubt be familiar with the critical reports about LASPO published not only by the Justice Committee,4Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Eighth report of session 2014–15, HC 311, 12 March 2015. but also by the National Audit Office,5Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, HC 784, 20 November 2014. the Public Accounts Committee6Implementing reforms to civil legal aid. Thirty-sixth report of session 2014–15, HC 808, 4 February 2015. and, more recently, the Joint Committee on Human Rights.7Enforcing human rights. Tenth report of session 2017–19, HC 669/HL Paper 171, 19 July 2018. In responding to the review of LASPO, YLAL prepared a detailed, evidence-based submission to the Ministry of Justice, drawing on the reports by parliamentary committees, representative groups, charities and other civil society organisations.8YLAL submission to the post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, September 2018.
Our submission focuses principally on means testing and financial eligibility, scope and early advice, exceptional case funding and the use of technology. Drawing all of these issues and the available evidence together, YLAL argues that the overall impact of LASPO has been hugely detrimental, and we urge the government to take urgent steps to repair the justice system so that future generations of legal aid lawyers are able to fulfil this vital public service. YLAL believes that all of the issues identified in our submission to the LASPO review both feed into the crisis facing access to justice and create significant obstacles in access to the profession for aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers.
Speaking at the same Conservative party conference fringe event referred to above, YLAL co-chair Oliver Carter spoke about the impact of LASPO, outlined the key points in our submission to the review and challenged those present – including the legal aid minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP – to consider what the present government is offering to young people who want to serve the public as legal aid lawyers.
Frazer told the event that the Conservatives are doing ‘a great deal’ about access to justice, listing a number of areas in which the government has widened the scope of legal aid since the introduction of LASPO. What the minister neglected to mention (but we did, in response) was that all of these reforms have been the result of successful legal challenges to government policy.
While recognising that legal aid is ‘absolutely critical to our justice system’, Frazer said she could not pre-empt the outcome of the LASPO review, but that there is a ‘cross-departmental recognition that we need to support people in asserting their rights’, including by improving the quality of decision-making by local and national government.
Of course, the opinions that really matter are those of Frazer and her colleagues in government, whether in the MoJ or the Treasury. YLAL and other campaigners for justice have provided the MoJ with the evidence and information it needs; now it’s over to the ministry to produce a comprehensive and objective review of the impact of LASPO, and come up with positive proposals for reform.
 
1     Michael Cross, ‘Corruption perception a threat to rule of law, says Grieve’, Law Society Gazette, 20 September 2018. »
2     Our human rights: a joint effort?, the Howard J Trienens Lecture, Northwestern University, Chicago, 25 September 2018. »
3     ‘Rethinking access to justice – risks and opportunities from the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid (LASPO) review’, 2 October 2018, organised by LawWorks, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pro Bono and Public Legal Education and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid. »
5     Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, HC 784, 20 November 2014. »
7     Enforcing human rights. Tenth report of session 2017–19, HC 669/HL Paper 171, 19 July 2018. »

About the author(s)

Katherine Barnes - author
Katherine Barnes is a barrister at 39 Essex Chambers and co-chair and treasurer of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Oliver Carter - author
Oliver Carter is a solicitor in the public law and human rights team at Irwin Mitchell and co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.