Problems and solutions: the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid’s report on sustainability in the sector is imminent
This month (September 2021) saw the completion of the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid
’s inquiry into the sustainability of the legal aid sector. The commission is a cross-party group of parliamentarians brought together by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid
to examine the state of the legal aid sector as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a series of evidence sessions over six months, it provided a platform for both clients and former, current and aspiring practitioners to share their experiences of the justice system.
The commission’s report will be launched in Westminster on 19 October 2021 and will be available on the APPG’s website
. Based on evidence from clients and practitioners from across the legal aid sector, together with research, data and literature, the report seeks to gauge whether the legal aid scheme is sufficient to meet the needs of those who interact with the justice system, and whether it is sustainable.
The full social and economic impacts of the pandemic are yet to unfold but many of the worst consequences will be felt by those who are least financially resilient. Emerging from the pandemic, many of these individuals are likely to need legal advice but will be unable to afford it. There are also major concerns about those whose problems have escalated as a result of the pandemic. The ability of these individuals to access justice will depend heavily on the continued availability of publicly funded legal aid, and on the additional resources required to meet new, emerging and increasing need.
Over the course of the inquiry, the commission found that:
•across England and Wales, there has been a continued and steady decline in the ability of those in legal need to access the services they require to interact with the justice system;
•it seems likely that legal need will increase as we emerge from the pandemic and rebuild our communities;
•to truly ‘level up’ our communities, individuals need to be aware of their legal rights and be able to act upon them;
•the decline in access to justice has a number of causes related specifically to legal aid policy:
•areas of law taken out of the scope of the scheme;
•a sharp decline in firms and organisations providing legal aid;
•difficulties recruiting and retaining civil and criminal legal aid lawyers; and
•fees that do not reflect the economic reality of delivering expert legal services; and
•the service being provided to the public is not sufficient and the legal aid profession as it stands is not sustainable.
The commission has developed a wide range of recommendations to address the deterioration in access to justice, which will improve the legal aid system as a whole and make it more sustainable. They look, in turn, at training, scope, the means threshold, fees and the exceptional case funding scheme, and attempt to cost the proposals in each of these areas.
However, if levelling up is to be more than just a manifesto pledge, then the vital role that the law plays in society needs to be recognised. A key takeaway from the inquiry was that no positive change will be made until the public and parliament both consider justice to be as important as health, education and foreign affairs. As the former lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, stated in his resignation letter
: ‘There remains … important work to be done in helping our system recover from this unprecedented shock [of the COVID-19 pandemic], and years of underfunding beforehand have not helped. Justice is beyond price, and as a government we should always be prepared to invest in it.’