A meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid was held on 30 October during Justice Week. Chaired by Karen Buck MP, the panel event opened with a ministerial update on the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Lucy Frazer QC MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, was welcomed and outlined the range of organisations and parliamentarians her team was meeting during the review. She confirmed that it will report by December. It was ‘looking at what works in legal aid – people often come forward with what they think works, but we need to look at what actually works’. The focus was on assessing delivery of LASPO’s original objectives, then on building an ‘evidence-based approach to legal aid’ for the future.
Though giving much detail of the process, the minister would not be further drawn on resources or proposals – when Lord Low asked if the review would have funding for implementation, she did not commit. When Andy Slaughter MP asked if she had ‘ruled out bringing things back into scope’, she would ‘not make any announcements about what they were going to do’. If the APPG had hoped for early hints of review recommendations, this was not to be.
Following the ministerial session, panel members underlined strong concerns at the plight of legal aid. Richard Burgon MP, shadow justice secretary, emphasised the seriousness of the funding landscape: the October budget confirmed ‘hundreds of millions of pounds cuts in justice, so austerity is not over’. He warned that, fundamentally, ‘when people lack funds to enforce rights, these rights are not worth the paper they are written on’. Spending on legal aid had fallen far further than planned. He urged cross-party support for a principle of returning funding for early legal advice, asserting that ‘cuts to legal advice have been a false economy’. A Labour government would review the legal aid means test and restore legal aid for all housing cases. Labour also planned for law centres to have a ‘a major new role’, enhanced as ‘hubs of community empowerment, trusted by the community’.
Andrew Walker QC, chair of the bar, doubted whether legal systems in their current state had the capacity to deliver effective access to justice. While the minister’s actions were ‘welcome and right, they were just tinkering’. Overall, it was essential to recognise that money is needed, and there was ‘no suggestion from anything said that any additional funding is coming forward.’ Action was needed urgently to ‘remove the pressure points in the system, with more fundamental changes to LASPO than envisaged’. A particular example was that the ‘family courts are in crisis’. He feared that fundamental damage had been done to the legal system over the five years since LASPO was introduced, so action was needed urgently.
Simon Davis, vice-president of the Law Society, referred to Justice Week’s aim ‘to boost access to justice and the rule of law. Society wants and deserves a system which is not only accessible to those who can afford it’. There was ‘clear evidence that early advice works, and without that individuals either give up, or dive in feet first’ and make problems worse. He was delighted that the minister was ‘listening’ during the LASPO review, but that was not the same as ‘learning’ and acting. Evidence presented must be robust – the government must not be able to say that evidence presented was inconclusive or contradictory. ‘Our citizens do see justice as being as important as health or education,’ he said, so justice should ‘protect our citizens when their legal health is at risk’.
Panel discussion centred on deserts in legal aid provision and on increasing concerns about the falling number of lawyers entering the field, as funding and scope reduced progressively. In concluding, Buck emphasised the particular point that the ‘lack of early intervention does lead to secondary costs further down the system’, but it was frustrating that nobody seemed able to ‘pin down these costs’ so to make the case for early involvement compelling.