Last week (27 February 2019), a packed meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid got the chance to debate the post-implementation review (PIR) of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO)1See Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 37, MoJ, February 2019, and Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, MoJ, February 2019; Post-implementation review of Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 38, MoJ, February 2019; and Final report: review of legal aid for inquests, CP 39, MoJ, February 2019.
with Lucy Frazer QC MP, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Some eye-catching promises were made at the meeting by the shadow justice secretary, Labour’s Richard Burgon MP, but the main issue debated was the lack of cash committed by the government to deal with the crisis in the legal aid system.
Frazer, who has responsibility for the courts and legal aid at the MoJ, told the meeting (which took place in parliament) that the PIR of LASPO had been a ‘thorough and honest reflection on the impact of LASPO’ but the review had concluded that it had only been ‘partially successful’ in meeting its objectives. She said that the government had set out a future strategy to ensure ‘sustainable legal aid provision in the long term’ and it was ‘not tenable to put back’ all of what had been cut.
According to Burgon, however, the review had been ‘too little too late’. He believed it was ‘more kicking the can down the road’ and the MoJ had missed an opportunity to begin to solve the crisis in access to justice. The cuts to legal aid, he argued, were deeper than the MoJ had originally intended, resulting in it saving an extra £200m.
Burgon made pledges to bring back legal aid for early advice in family, housing and benefits cases. He also said that when Labour returned to government, it would extend legal aid to all deaths in custody cases and promised it would ensure a ‘golden age of Law Centres’, by increasing their numbers and ensuring a new generation of lawyers are trained in social welfare law.
Responding to Burgon’s comments, Frazer said it was ‘easy’ for the opposition ‘to say that you will put 100s of millions back into face-to-face advice’. Addressing the issue of legal aid for inquests and referring to the INQUEST campaign
meeting that had been held previous the night, she said she’d been ‘very touched by the families’ stories from yesterday’ and we ‘must make it easier to access legal aid for death-in-custody cases’.
As part of the review, the government had announced additional spending, including £1.5m extra for services to support litigants in person and a £5m fund to encourage digital innovation. In his speech, Burgon argued that ‘less than one per cent of the cuts which [had] been made by LASPO [were] being put back’ by the measures that the MoJ had announced. In response to this and other comments about the low amount the government had committed to spending, Frazer said it was ‘not right to say that we are just putting in £8m’ (a figure widely quoted in the media). She said the changes to scope and the government’s commitment to try to ensure better take-up of legal aid services meant this figure would be exceeded.
In her initial speech at the meeting, Frazer had said the government was committed to reviewing the legal aid means test and criminal fees as well as other issues. She also emphasised the MoJ’s commitment to the early advice pilot, which had been announced in Legal support: the way ahead, as it needed to ‘build a strong case for early legal advice’ to convince the Treasury to fund it in the future. Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP and vice-chair of the APPG, argued that ‘pilots and reviews are what you do when you know something is wrong’ but don’t want to spend money to put them right.
Bob Neill, Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Justice Committee (which scrutinises the work of the MoJ), told the meeting that it was ‘important to get on and implement the findings of the reviews’. He expressed concern about the struggles people faced to access legal aid in some constituencies, including his own (Bromley and Chislehurst), because of the lack of legal aid firms. He added that ‘access to justice should be seen as a service and a basic social entitlement in the same way as the right to health and education are’, but acknowledged that addressing the problems in legal aid and other parts of the justice system ‘in reality, having been a minister myself, comes down to how much you can get out of the Treasury’.
Steve Hynes, then LAG director, told Frazer that while he welcomed the change of tone that the review documents represented, ‘we need major investment, not just in legal aid, but across the justice system’. He added that ‘we also need more clarity on what the government’s next steps are, including deadlines to take action’ on the issues identified in the reports.