Government announces improvements to civil legal aid
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Marc Bloomfield
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday (21 April 2020) announced changes to legal aid, including improvements to widen access to legal aid in domestic abuse (DA) cases, as well as the reinstatement of direct advice in debt, discrimination and special educational needs (SEN).
According to Alex Chalk MP, the minister responsible for legal aid, the changes will improve ‘support for some of the most vulnerable people in the justice system’. The alterations to the legal aid regulations were announced in a press release from the MoJ and will be effective from 15 May. The full proposals are included in the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 SI No 439.
Vicky Ling, an editor of LAG’s Legal Aid Handbook 2020/21, described the changes as ‘helpful but not fantastic’. Olive Craig, senior legal officer (family and criminal law) at the charity Rights of Women, told Legal Action they were ‘merely long-awaited changes to the gateway to correct mistakes’ that the government had made in the last set of regulations introduced two years ago. She believes the government needs to address ‘the real dangers faced by victims of abuse during these difficult times’ and that ‘a more appropriate response would have been to properly fund domestic abuse support services, remove the gateway criteria and provide non-means-tested legal aid for injunction applications’.
An additional £2m in funding to support DA helplines and online support was also announced, but Ling argued that one of the main problems remains ‘connecting people who need legal aid with providers’. She is also concerned that, due to the COVID-19 crisis, ‘work has fallen off a cliff for many legal aid firms’ and fears for their survival in the coming months, especially if the government ends the furlough pay system.
As part of the Post-implementation review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) (CP 37, February 20219), the government had expressed dissatisfaction about the effectiveness of the telephone gateway system through which members of the public needing advice on SEN, discrimination and debt cases are required to go.1See March 2019 Legal Action 7. In yesterday’s announcement, it was confirmed that this would be scrapped. The public will now be able to get advice directly from the firms and not-for-profit organisations that hold contracts in these areas of law. Ling described this as ‘good news’ as it was clear that the gateway system was discouraging people who were eligible for legal aid from seeking help with these issues.
Chalk described yesterday’s announcements as ‘the latest step in delivering our vision of a system that focuses on individuals and enables them to resolve legal problems quickly and easily’.
 
1     See March 2019 Legal Action 7. »

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