Authors:Jon Robins
Last updated:2023-09-26
LASPO at 10: ‘A complete waste of time’
Louise Heath
Jon Robins reports back from Legal Action Group’s well-attended ‘Legal aid: fighting for the future’ event, held in parliament on 27 March.
There has been a more than 70 per cent collapse in the number of civil legal aid cases over the past decade, according to statistics revealed at a Westminster event highlighting the devastation wrought on the advice sector in the 10 years since the 2013 legal aid cuts.1See also: Legal aid statistics: July to September 2022, Ministry of Justice/Legal Aid Agency, 15 December 2022, Table 1.2. Lord Willy Bach, the former shadow attorney-general, told a packed meeting in the House of Commons, organised by LAG, that the number of cases had plummeted from a ‘record’ high of 934,000 in 2009/10, the last year of the Labour government, to just 127,674 in 2021/22.2Number of new civil legal help cases, see note 1.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force on 1 April 2013, removing entire areas of social welfare law advice, and was described by one speaker as ‘a wrecking ball’. According to Lord Bach, there is now a ‘post-LASPO average’ of 146,800 new civil matter starts a year. ‘That’s an absolutely shocking figure,’ the peer told lawyers, campaigners and parliamentarians. ‘When you consider the individuals who used to receive some sort of access to justice, that constitutes a scandal.’
The event featured speakers from the frontline of legal aid practice, who attested to the scale of damage to the sector and their clients. Greater Manchester Law Centre was established as a response to the challenges of the post-LASPO world. ‘In 2013, there were nine Law Centres in Greater Manchester,’ director Jason Tetley told the meeting. ‘We’re the last ones left, and we’re the newbie. We were set up in 2016 because the community said: “We’re going to fight for legal aid.” We’ve seen four legal aid housing providers give up their contracts in the last 12 months because of staff shortages and funding problems.’
Dr Jo Wilding, a barrister and law lecturer from the University of Sussex, has been researching the impact of the LASPO cuts on immigration and asylum advice. She reported that, as of February this year, there were 225 offices with legal aid contracts. ‘That’s 100 fewer than when the contracts were awarded in September 2018,’ she said. ‘It’s 25 fewer than a year ago. We’ve been losing providers at a rate of about two-and-a-half a year.’
Large tracts of England and Wales are now immigration legal aid ‘advice deserts’. According to Wilding, these ‘deserts’ include: the whole of Wales ‘apart from the very south and one guy in North Wales’; the East of England region ‘including Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk plus Lincolnshire’; the South West below Bristol ‘apart from two people in a windowless office in Plymouth’; Northumbria and Cumbria; and ‘most of the South Coast’.
Fighting for the future
A second panel of speakers addressed the future of legal aid and the campaign to re-establish access to justice in the wake of the cuts. Lord Bach, who led Labour’s opposition to LASPO in the House of Lords, argued that ‘the tiny, meagre savings’ made by the LASPO cuts had been spent ‘many, many times over’ by the state in ‘completely unnecessary court hearings, people’s everyday problems just not being solved and in lives falling apart’. ‘What a complete waste of time it’s been,’ he added. ‘I think we all understand we can’t just go back to what the system was in 2010 and, by the way, it wasn’t the perfect system then. It lacked resources then too, but at least it was a system.’
Isaac Abraham, co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers and a trainee solicitor in the immigration department at Wilson Solicitors, argued that ‘promoting a sustainable legal aid system means repealing LASPO’. ‘And starting again means looking at what we want justice in the 21st century to look like,’ he continued.
Abraham flagged the hurdles facing young lawyers wanting to enter the legal aid profession in such a hostile environment, especially those from working class or Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. He pointed out that 63 per cent of white students are passing the qualification exam compared with just 28 per cent of Black and 48 per cent of Asian students. He went on to explain: ‘There’s nothing in our universities that teaches students about legal aid or access to justice. It just doesn’t exist in our current legal curriculum. I spent more time thinking about business law than thinking about welfare and debt advice as someone trying to become a solicitor. If we want to reimagine legal aid, that requires us having to reimagine our legal education system.’
Solicitor and former LAG director Roger Smith and former circuit judge Nic Madge set out their vision for a National Legal Service. The two described the post-2013 legal aid scheme as ‘broken beyond repair’. ‘Over the past 13 years, it has been destroyed,’ they said. ‘It has been eviscerated by legislative changes, starved of resources and ruined by poor management. It is time to start again with a new vision.’
‘We have to decide who is the most desperate’
In the first half of the meeting, lawyers and advisers talked about the pressures of working in a failing system. ‪Springfield Advice & Law Centre was established on the site of ‪Springfield Mental Health Hospital 40 years ago to provide legal services to service users and their carers ‘without judgement or stigma’. ‘Little by little, but especially since the advent of LASPO, the remit of legal aid has become dangerously narrow,’ explained Melanie Gonga, the Law Centre’s director. ‘These developments have sought to deskill us as legal professionals, to ‪discourage any would-be new entrants into the practice of social welfare law, and have eroded and ‪devalued such provision that there is.’
Meanwhile, the needs of her vulnerable clients have become ‘more complex, multifaceted’ at the same time as the legal aid system has ‘forbidden us from taking a holistic, ‪whole-person approach to our work’. According to Gonga, this ‘feeds into a cycle of inequality and ‪deprivation’. The lawyer doubted whether the sector could withstand the ‘three- to five-year wait … whilst the devastation wrought by LASPO is examined from all its angles’.
Rosaleen Kilbane, a founding partner of Birmingham-based Community Law Partnership, spoke of the ‘human misery’ of those she and her colleagues help on court duty schemes facing possession proceedings. ‘People are terrified coming to court because they could lose their home,’ she said. ‘It’s beyond unspeakable.’
Kilbane said the ‘most agonising part’ of the job was that ‘we just cannot cope with the demand as people have left the market’. The firm has employed a ‘client coordinator’ to help with the volume of calls from people seeking help, who completes a pro forma for each caller with a ‘fast track for people who are street homeless’. The firm’s eight partners are on a rota. ‘If you’re on duty, it’s your job to decide which of those cases you will take and that’s the most heartbreaking thing. People living in really squalid conditions with children; in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with children for months on end. People who have just been fobbed off when they’re clearly homeless. We have to decide who is the most desperate. That’s the part of the job that we all hate. We just can’t take everybody on, there just aren’t enough of us.’
Wilding explained the problem of what she’s previously characterised as both advice ‘deserts’ and ‘droughts’. The barrister reported that there was a total of 32,700 available matter starts under the legal aid immigration contract in the year ending August 2022 compared with over 63,000 asylum applicants (including 5,100 accommodated in Scotland and Northern Ireland). ‘That leaves a deficit of at least 25,000 between provision and need; so at least 45 per cent of applicants in England and Wales in that year could not get a legally aided representative despite being entitled to legal aid,’ she said.
Wilding pointed out that on a local level the picture was even more problematic than her description of ‘deserts’ suggested. She reported that the Sheffield City of Sanctuary initiative contacted every provider in South Yorkshire with a contract earlier in March. According to the barrister, there were seven such providers but only one presently undertaking complex trafficking cases; two did not offer legal aid services anymore and four had no capacity to take on publicly funded cases. Over in West Yorkshire, the picture looked ‘OK in theory’. There were 19 providers with contracts; however, seven of them had taken on no legal aid cases in the previous year and at least another two offices were closed.
Even that dismal picture did not fully explain the failure of the system. Many firms with contracts no longer do immigration appeals on the basis that the work is no longer viable. ‘They can’t afford to do it,’ Wilding explained. One firm wrote to existing clients explaining that if they received a refusal, it would not be able to take up their appeal; however, others were ‘less upfront about it’ but were nevertheless ‘dropping clients’ when they received a refusal.
The ‘stark’ crisis in housing law
Kilbane reported that pre-LASPO there was ‘a thriving West Midlands housing law group’ comprising a dozen firms doing legal aid housing work. ‘There are now three,’ she said. ‘All of the firms that did legal aid, as well as private practice, have closed their legal aid housing teams. Other firms haven’t managed to make it viable, so there’s now us, one other firm in private practice that also acts for landlords and Shelter.’
Warren Palmer, the director at the Speakeasy Law Centre in Cardiff, described LASPO as ‘a wrecking ball to the legal aid sector in Wales’. He explained that there was a time when Speakeasy undertook legally aided benefits and debt work across much of South East Wales (‘Blaenau Gwent, Newport, Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taf’). ‘We were a small team, so the numbers were not high, but it meant that it was possible to see a specialist solicitor for more complex cases,’ Palmer continued. ‘In the last 10 years, we have done no legally aided work and we are largely confined to Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. And that is part of a wider pattern, with fewer options for people across Wales to get free legal advice when they badly need it.’
The cuts have been ‘most stark’ for housing law, Palmer reckoned, adding that Cardiff Law Centre and TA Law in Swansea both closed ‘citing the LASPO cuts as the reason they couldn’t go on’. At the start of the year, Duncan Lewis closed its Cardiff office and Harding Evans in Newport ‘handed back’ its housing contract. Palmer reported that Shelter Cymru is the only housing provider with an active legal aid contract in Wales.
Greater Manchester Law Centre’s Tetley pointed out that, of the Law Centre’s 1,600 clients, it was only able to ‘broker’ or arrange specialist advice appointments for 88. ‘We talk about “levelling up” but the inequality of arms faced by individuals in the justice system is only increasing and, without strategic investment, the situation will only get worse.’ According to Tetley, ‘the safety net of access to advice’ isn’t ‘just fraying but flapping in the winds of injustice’.
Kilbane highlighted the removal of funding for housing disrepair (‘a complete disaster’) and spoke of a recent case involving ‘a rogue private landlord’ who issued possession proceedings against a client she met through the duty scheme. She recalled how the tenant’s house was ‘falling down around his ears. There is a leaking soil pipe with sewage coming into the bathroom. There’s mould everywhere. It’s disgusting.’
Her firm managed to successfully apply for an injunction. ‘So that’s a good result for him,’ Kilbane explained; however, the tenant can’t pursue the landlord for damages. ‘If legal aid was available, we would pursue the rogue landlord for damages and costs, and we wouldn’t bill the Legal Aid Agency a penny. As it is, rogue landlords are getting off scot-free and the taxpayer is paying us to work for people living in impossible conditions. It’s not right and makes no economic sense.’
Wilding cited the example of a woman with five children, who had leave to remain, who was referred to one legal advice charity by child protection because ‘the children were hungry and in ragged clothes because Mum was working but spending all her income on rent with no top-up benefits because she had no recourse to public funds’. ‘The cost to children’s services and to the local authority was huge and all of that should have come from the Ministry of Justice budget paying a lawyer a really small amount of money to sort out her change of conditions application to get her recourse to public funds.’
‘LASPO has achieved exactly what we all said it was going to achieve,’ Wilding reckoned. ‘Savings for the Ministry of Justice through displacement of need and the displacement of cost onto other departments and local authorities which then have those “last resort” duties to accommodate people and give them assistance when they didn’t get immigration advice in time.’
1     See also: Legal aid statistics: July to September 2022, Ministry of Justice/Legal Aid Agency, 15 December 2022, Table 1.2. »
2     Number of new civil legal help cases, see note 1. »