The Action Plan in action
Marc Bloomfield
Wendy Morton MP sets out how the Ministry of Justice is following up on the Legal Support Action Plan.
Access to justice is a fundamental principle underpinning the rule of law and is at the heart of our justice system. For people to successfully resolve their legal problems in the courts or in other ways, they may need support throughout the process. This may range widely and is dependent on the person and the legal problem they face. When I refer to legal support, I mean the totality of support available to people from information, guidance and signposting at one end of the spectrum to legal advice and representation at the other.
The Legal Support Action Plan (Action Plan) was published in February last year1Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, MoJ, February 2019. in response to the findings of the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO PIR).2Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), CP 37, MoJ, February 2019. Legal aid is, and will remain, a core element of the support on offer, and last year the government spent £1.6bn on legal aid funding; however, the Action Plan set out our vision for resolving legal problems earlier by ensuring that people can access the right legal support services at the right time, and in the right way for them.
Now, a year on from the publication of the Action Plan, we can look back at what has been delivered while also looking forwards to the next steps in delivering our vision of legal support.
Access to legal aid
The means test review is progressing well and is currently on target for publication in summer 2020, alongside a consultation on potential changes to the means tests.
We committed to conduct a review of the legal aid eligibility thresholds. The means test review is considering the thresholds for civil and criminal legal aid entitlement and their interaction with the wider criteria, for example, how income and capital are defined in this context and the passporting arrangements for benefit recipients. A stakeholder advisory group has been established to ensure that the experiences of legal aid practitioners, their clients and relevant third-sector groups are taken into account during the policy development process. The review is progressing well and is currently on target for publication in summer 2020, alongside a consultation on potential changes to the means tests.
We have extended legal aid funding to encompass cases of separated migrant children for non-asylum issues (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid for Separated Children) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2019 SI No 1396). This amendment has brought separated migrant children into scope of legal aid for non-asylum immigration issues and citizenship matters, and is now in force having been supported by both Houses of Parliament, meaning separated migrant children have access to legal advice on all non-asylum immigration issues and citizenship matters. This amendment has ensured access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in society.
We also committed to make changes to several procedures to make access to legal aid easier. We have held two stakeholder roundtables to discuss the exceptional case funding (ECF) application process and because of these, we are developing new simplified guides to sit alongside the lord chancellor’s guidance to help individuals who are applying for ECF.
To ensure our legal aid scheme maintains sustainability for the profession and access to justice for the end user, we set up the criminal legal aid review to consider criminal legal aid throughout the lifecycle of a criminal case. Recognising some of the issues identified early in the review, we took the decision to accelerate certain areas of concern to defence practitioners and will report on these ahead of the wider review. These are: unused material; cracked trials in the Crown Court; how advocates are paid for paper-heavy cases; pre-charge by defence practitioners; and payment for sending cases to the Crown Court.
We will launch a new campaign to improve awareness of how people can access support to help them resolve their issues (ideally before they become complex legal problems) including how to access legal aid. We have been refining our approach on how to deliver this, including the development of a pilot, which we hope to launch in early 2020. The pilot will help inform our overall approach, to ensure a greater chance of success, before we commence the wider campaign later in the year.
Delivery of services
However, publicly-funded advice and representation is one part of a bigger picture. The LASPO PIR clearly set out that there is a wider range of legal support being provided across England and Wales. While the Action Plan set out several necessary steps to ensure vulnerable people can access legal aid when they need it, it also included a number of projects and pilots designed to test the best ways of delivering that wider support.
We committed to explore how to better coordinate and signpost people to legal support, and to test a series of changes and enhancements to triage and signpost support offered by the civil legal advice telephone line. The need for better signposting is understood; however, there is a lack of evidence of the most effective ways of signposting people and the ways in which people engage with different signposting methods. It was agreed for the pilot to utilise two platforms – telephone and online – to improve and enhance signposting, allowing us to test and evaluate their efficacy.
We will pilot an online service to support people experiencing housing disrepair problems, providing tailored information for users to resolve the problem themselves and signposting to relevant providers for further support. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to design this, to understand how people currently trying to resolve issues of housing disrepair access the legal system.
This service will be hosted on a government-owned platform, and data and feedback will both inform its development and feed into our evidence base on the ways in which people need legal support. Policy officials continue to work closely with key stakeholders to unify the ways in which users are directed from Ministry of Justice (MoJ)-operated telephone lines to the right places to resolve their problems.
We have also committed to pilot co-locating a variety of different support services together in a holistic hub that can better address the different problems people experience. In order for the hub, the collection of data and the evaluation to be most effective, we will be enhancing and evaluating an existing hub. We are continuing research, learning from previous government projects and working collaboratively with the sector to develop this as part of work to explore new, better ways to help people resolve their issues.
Litigants in person
Since 2014–15, the MoJ has invested close to £8m in support for litigants in person (LiPs) in the civil and family courts through the Litigant in Person Support Strategy. The strategy works with a range of partners across England and Wales in the advice, voluntary and pro bono sectors to provide practical support for LiPs. The Action Plan announced that we are providing a further £3m of funding over the next two years to enhance this support, which is being met through the creation of the new, separate legal support grant. This intends to develop our understanding of how and when LiPs access different services and build an evidence base of what works by evaluating the effectiveness of the support delivered by this new grant.
We are delighted to be working so closely with the Access to Justice Foundation (ATJF) as our primary partner to deliver the new grant funding and are looking forward to building relationships with frontline organisations who are already doing fantastic work in the sector. Together with the ATJF, we have created a framework for the types of services that the new grant may fund, ranging from face-to-face support to guidance delivered through technology. We are working with MoJ analysts, external experts and the ATJF to ensure that we evaluate projects funded by the new grant.
Early advice
To evaluate the extent to which legal services funded through legal aid may be the most effective form of supporting someone to resolve their legal problem early, we are piloting the expansion of legally-aided advice into an area of social welfare law. We have held meetings across government to narrow down the area of social welfare law and ensure there are sufficient legal issues arising where individuals could benefit from early legal advice. We remain interested in the area of welfare benefits and the impact of early legal advice in preventing downstream impacts on housing.
The next step is to confirm the area of social welfare law and a shortlist of suitable locations for the pilot. We are looking to ensure we measure the impact of the intervention on individuals themselves, and their feelings on whether access to legal advice was helpful, as well as a more traditional cost-benefit analysis.
The new £5m innovation fund will explore the role technology could play in helping people identify and resolve their legal issues, improving the range of services or solutions based on a robust evidence base on what works, for which people, and for which legal problems. In summer 2019, we held a workshop involving representatives from the legal sector, the third sector, academia and government to test where this fund should be focused. From this, we have developed possible areas of intervention for this fund to concentrate on, framing these as problem statements. We are currently working with colleagues in other parts of government to design the best approach to deliver this funding to ensure we capture the right evidence, build effective services and solutions, and provide the foundation on which other innovators can build.
Evaluation and collaboration
To ensure we build a robust evidence base on the service users we support and the types of support that have been most successful, we must gather the data collected through continued partnership by working with stakeholders, evaluating this against a common framework which we are currently designing with the support of the advisory group and its evaluation sub-group. It will be this evaluation that helps us to design future evidence-based policy changes, placing at their heart the needs of those who require access to justice.
We will continue our open and collaborative working with experts, identifying and evaluating new ideas, and supporting practitioners to continue to deliver high-quality legal support to people across England and Wales. We are committed to delivering our vision for the long term; however, we acknowledge that this cannot be delivered without the steers and guidance from sector experts both in and out of government. We thank all of our stakeholders and delivery partners for their collaboration over the past few years, and we look forward to continuing this spirit of cooperation into the future to improve access to justice for the most vulnerable in society.

About the author(s)

Description: Wendy Morton - author
Wendy Morton MP is a parliamentary under secretary of state for the Ministry of Justice. She is the Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills.