Labour’s Karen Buck MP chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid
’s first event of the new parliament on 3 February 2020, at which key justice issues and priorities for 2020 and beyond were discussed.
Speakers from across the political and legal spectrum drew attention to the effect of prolonged austerity on access to justice, especially civil and criminal legal aid. They called for the government to recognise and address the serious issues this had created for people needing legal support, whether advice, assistance or representation. Many emphasised how depleted services had become, from social welfare law to criminal cases.
Progressive funding cuts combined with stagnant remuneration were taking a heavy toll on provision. The profession was losing criminal and legal aid skills, courts were experiencing long delays and much civil legal aid for vulnerable clients was no longer available, because either no organisations were doing the work or it had been removed from scope. More resources were needed and the call for action had to be taken beyond the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to the Treasury and other government departments.
Lord Falconer, the former Labour lord chancellor, said that the situation for legal aid and the law was ‘getting worse and worse’. Justice had become the Cinderella service and was undervalued. A further threat to resources had just been reported, with the Treasury seeking proposals from all government departments on how they would cut their spending by five per cent
. He highlighted the increasing plight of people unable to access justice, urging that ‘we must do something to reverse the legal aid tanker or the poor and dispossessed will suffer’.
Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Committee, also sounded the alert. The MoJ had ‘suffered from an unprotected budget for some time’ and was ‘especially vulnerable’. He said the situation had gone too far and resources must not be reduced further. ‘Justice is a social service,’ he said, ‘just as much as having proper schools and healthcare.’ All present needed to press for more resources for people seeking justice, by making it ‘all real, by relating to real members of society’.
MPs Bambos Charalambous (Labour) and Daisy Cooper (Liberal Democrats) echoed the concerns and spoke of the critical importance of early legal advice. Amanda Pinto QC, chair of The Bar Council, illustrated the impact on family law, citing a spending cut of a third in this legal aid category since 2010/11. Simon Davis, Law Society president, said the number of legal aid firms was down by 40 per cent since that time. Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, spelt out a five-point action plan, in which, for all points, what was needed was a commitment to ‘invest’.
Fiona Rutherford, meanwhile, sought to highlight some positives. The director of access to justice policy at the MoJ explained that, in the post-election period, progress was being made on several fronts. The Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO)
(MoJ, CP 37, February 2019) had set the scene for these. The government had embarked on a criminal legal aid review
, a means test review, and set up a £5m legal support innovation fund, plus a fund for supporting litigants in person.1See February 2020 Legal Action 10.
A priority, she said, was to study how certain groups, including the victims of domestic violence, could be best served. She also highlighted that the MoJ’s policy development work was continually supported by stakeholder input, including through regional focus groups.
In summary, Chris Minnoch, CEO of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, underlined the message that legal aid and support needs to be seen as a public service, like the NHS. He pressed for further details of the MoJ’s proposals.