Thirty-seven and rising: the number of legal aid providers lost since the early days of the pandemic
(Clockwise from top left) Lord Willy Bach, Yvonne Fovargue MP, Karen Buck MP, Karl Turner MP, Andy Slaughter MP and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Karen Buck MP, chair of the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid
, ended the 17 December 2020 session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid’s inquiry into legal aid sustainability by pointing out the striking number (20) of legal aid providers that were no longer in the field since the commission started in September. At the last count, 37 providers had collapsed since April 2020. That’s more than 70 offices. By the time this article is published, the number will doubtless be higher still. Each provider that has closed leaves yet another area in which vulnerable people will no longer be able to get the legal advice that they desperately require. And as every single Legal Action
reader knows, access to legal advice and representation is more important than ever, as we try to navigate this unparalleled crisis.
In these early days of 2021, ours is not the only vital service crippled by the pandemic; nor will it be the only casualty. The legal aid system was on its knees long before the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the fact that it still staggers on, bloodied but unbowed, is solely down to the goodwill and efforts of those who work within it. The Westminster Commission is currently preparing for its fourth oral evidence session; each of the previous sessions has been a paean to those professionals, who are drawn to the law to make society better, fairer, kinder. It has been a privilege to meet all of our witnesses and to hear their accounts.
What did our civil session tell us? Public Law Project’s Jo Hickman explained how much harder it is for ordinary people to challenge unlawful decisions by public authorities. She described the domestic abuse victim turned down for legal aid and the elderly, blind client lacking mental capacity, who was refused funding for his case to regularise his immigration status under the Legal Aid Agency's exceptional case funding provisions.
Mackintosh Law co-director Nicola Mackintosh QC (Hon) described how her clients, all of whom are disabled, are some of ‘the most marginalised people in society’. By the time she meets them, almost all are in dire need of legal assistance, such as support to access social care and mental health services or to challenge a wrongful deprivation of their liberty.
We also heard from Rosaleen Kilbane, housing solicitor and a co-founder of the Community Law Partnership (CLP), about her fears for the future of her firm. She warned: ‘I don’t think we can survive in our current form. If we don’t survive, I don’t know where people will go.’ CLP generally turns away around four people for every one it assists due to lack of capacity. She described one client, a wheelchair user unable to access the toilet in her accommodation: by the time she came to CLP, she had been starving herself in order to avoid needing to use the bathroom. CLP successfully brought a judicial review to compel the local authority to rehouse her – but the firm makes these applications at its own financial risk.
Polly Sweeney, solicitor and partner at Rook Irwin Sweeney, had similar concerns about the fate of legally aided firms. In one of her specialist areas of school exclusions, she described a provider base ‘completely damaged and destroyed’ by LASPO1Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
cuts to the extent that ‘there are now just eight law firms nationally able to provide advice and assistance in this area’ under legal aid contracts.
The message that emerged over and over again was that this work has been harder and harder to do since LASPO, and many clients in desperate need are deprived of legal aid. This isn’t just a justice gap; it’s an ever-widening chasm between those with means, who can access justice, and those being left behind.
At the start of the session, Sir Bob Neill MP, chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, described legal aid as a ‘civic right like access to health or education’. Karl Turner MP, shadow legal aid minister, furiously decried the broken system, ‘which should be a national shame’.
In Alex Chalk MP and the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, we have two individuals who understand the system, its weaknesses and its necessity, and who have (in the past, at least) been prepared to fight for it. We have both a ministerial and Ministry of Justice team far more committed to this area of policy work than previous regimes. What we don’t seem to have is the clout as a sector or in the current ministerial team to make a strong enough case to be heard by the Treasury. Currently, we don’t have the data to prove just how bad things have become – something that the inquiry will remedy with the legal aid workforce survey that we will launch at the end of March. I urge all LAG readers to take part. Your input will be vital.
What we may still lack, however, is the political capital needed to make the case for our survival, in these worst of times, to those with the power to improve things. Without changing our political and national psyche, I’m less certain of how we can address that.