Legal aid was the subject of a special debate in parliament earlier this month (Hansard HC Debates vol 648 col 418WH
, 1 November 2018). Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, initiated the Westminster Hall debate (such debates take place away from the main chamber in the House of Commons) to consider ‘the future of legal aid’.
Slaughter, who as shadow justice minister led the opposition to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) in the Commons, told MPs that the aim of the Act had been ‘to reduce the legal aid budget by £350m, but last year spending was £950m less than in 2010’. He called on the government to restore legal aid for early advice as its removal had meant that ‘simple problems are left to escalate’.
The chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, described early advice as ‘essential’ and admitted that he believed the government had allowed the pendulum to swing ‘too far the other way’ with the reductions in legal aid. He urged ministers to rethink their policy on legal aid.
Karen Buck, the Labour MP for Westminster North and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, joined in the plea for the restoration of legal aid for early advice. She also highlighted the increase in number of legal aid advice deserts as there are ‘areas of the country where nobody is bidding or competing for legal aid contracts in housing law, because they are simply not able to make money out of them’.
Neill also expressed concerns about the viability of legal aid firms, citing evidence given to the Justice Committee by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). This showed that half of the 2,000 firms surveyed were running the risk of financial difficulty. The main reason behind this that the SRA gave, explained Neill, was being dependent for ‘more than half their fee income [on] criminal or family legal aid’.
Responding to a question from Buck about the loss of providers, Lucy Frazer QC, the minister with responsibility for legal aid policy at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), told the MPs that 1,700 firms had bid for contracts in the recent civil tender round. She acknowledged, though, the need to ensure that legal aid is available across the country ‘not just in high-density areas’. The minister also said that the point about nipping problems in the bud ‘so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard’.
Slaughter also called for the restoration of legal aid for welfare benefits cases and for more simplified criteria for those in need to qualify for legal aid. Frazer did not respond to these requests specifically, but said in her reply to the debate that the MoJ was ‘looking at the impacts of LASPO’, and that it would be wrong of her to pre-empt the ongoing review, the findings of which would be published before the end of the year.