Public awareness of legal aid was the theme of a joint meeting on 10 June 2019 of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Legal Aid
and Public Legal Education/Pro Bono
. Speakers included journalist Owen Bowcott, Alex Scott, head of legal support policy at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and LAG’s Carol Storer.
As legal correspondent for the Guardian, Bowcott has been covering legal aid stories for the past eight years. He told the meeting that he believes that much of what has happened due to legal aid cuts ‘has been a hidden and silent tragedy for most of the population’. He candidly admitted to feeling a ‘bit of a failure’ for not being able to do more to dramatise the impact of the cuts to legal aid, but said ‘readers identify more with people’s stories rather than statistics and trends’. The understandable difficulties in reporting individual cases in the family courts are, he believes, part of the problem of trying to find the sorts of case studies that will catch the public’s attention.
The case of PC Keith Palmer, who was killed in the Westminster Bridge terrorist attacks, was an example of a human story on legal aid that received much publicity. Bowcott highlighted the case in a piece around a demand from campaign groups to extend legal aid to inquests (‘Calls for emergency legal aid for relatives of those who die in custody
, 9 October 2018), and was disappointed that the government had not taken the opportunity in the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) to extend legal aid to this. He believes, though, that political opinion is shifting and ‘if there were votes in parliament, I suspect there would be a majority in favour of spending more on justice’.
Alex Scott argued that the publicity around the LASPO cuts has led to a public perception that legal aid is no longer available. He expressed concern that in areas of law such as community care and mental health, demand has fallen dramatically despite them still being covered by legal aid. The fall in the take-up of advice within police stations, he believes, is another area of concern and feels there is a ‘lack of awareness amongst young people about their rights in the justice system’.
‘Publicising legal aid was way too complicated,’ argued Storer in her comments. She gave the example of trying to devise a poster to publicise the availability of legal aid: ‘it had about 50 things on it’ to try to explain the qualifying conditions.
The drop in both legal aid firms and other advice providers over recent years was cited by a number of speakers. Storer remarked: ‘What’s the point of raising awareness [of legal aid] if there is no one there to take the case?’ She argued that there needs to be a ‘champion for legal aid’ across government to increase awareness and availability of services.
Audience members spoke of cases involving people on low incomes who were unable to obtain legal aid due to the stringent means test. A review of the means test is one of the action points included in the government’s strategy for legal aid, published in February this year (Legal support: the way ahead
, CP 40, MoJ, February 2019). Chris Minnoch, CEO of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group
, asked Scott if he could give details about the government’s plans to consult on the strategy. Scott said it has not found a way to do so yet, but it is aiming to work with providers to demonstrate the value of legal aid.