Unusually, the Justice Select Committee have published all the submissions it has received to its inquiry on the impact of changes to civil legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, but have not yet published their own conclusions. In the absence of a full analysis of data by the Ministry of Justice on ‘year one’ of LASPO impacts for client caseloads and providers, this is the most comprehensive picture so far of what is happening, and chimes with much of what different organisations have been telling the Low Commission over the past year.
So what have we learnt so far?
Litigants in person
Firstly, there is a massive emerging issue over litigants in person, especially in the family courts – even the Judicial Executive Board expressed concerns that the courts don’t have the capacity to deal with the huge rise in self-representation and that “the adverse impact upon courts’ administration and efficiency has been considerable”. It is also clear that with family and related civil matters it’s a gendered picture with vulnerable women at particular disadvantage in being able to access timely legal help; research provided by WomensAid to the Committee demonstrated that in the first 4 months of the domestic violence evidence gateway, 50% of women experiencing violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.
The submissions show that all social welfare, civil and family advice providers have been struggling to cope to varying degrees; Citizens Advice Bureaux have lost £19 million of funding annually with consequent withdrawal of specialist help for approximately 120,000 social welfare law cases this financial year, the Law Centres Network note that in the first year since implementation of LASPO nine Law Centres have closed, comprising a sixth of their membership, and the Law Society report downsizing of departments reliant on legal aid work and consequent redundancies in the high street sector.
It is clear from the submissions that unmet demand is growing especially amongst vulnerable groups. Citizens Advice’s submission show many bureaux reporting that clients were experiencing long delays to access specialist advice, or having no access at all to the level of help they need. Mind’s submission included a survey of its members and supporters to ascertain the direct effects of the changes on their access to justice. 11.85 % needed debt advice, 39.2% needed benefits advice 27.5 % needed housing advice, 43.1% needed discrimination advice, and 11.8 % needed social care advice.
However only 12% were able to get the advice they were looking for. Young Legal Aid Lawyers submission included in their the results from their survey of MPs surgeries previously carried out for the Low Commission which showed 86% of respondent MPs indicating an big increase in demand for advice since 1 April 2013 corresponding with the areas of law affected by LASPO.
What is left within civil legal aid does not appear to be working effectively. Housing legal advice providers for example all expressed their frustration at being unable to take on housing benefit issues even where tenants were at threat of immediate eviction. And as the Mary Ward Centre’s submission point out private household arrears and debt issues which lead to repossessions should not be left to the ‘order for sale’ stage to intervene, as repossession would be better avoided if housing advisers could assist at the ‘charging order’ stage by securing instalments or debt relief. Law Centres commented that being unable to provide ‘complete solutions to clients’ problems’, was increasing referrals to other agencies – food banks, hostels, mental health services – for emergency assistance, at greater cost to the exchequer and local authorities. Citizens Advice’s submission observes how “in addition to the severe reduction in matter starts, the huge narrowing of cases that now fall within scope has meant that people can only access legal help at the very urgent stage of their case. This is a false economy. A vast amount of our debt work focused on early intervention to avoid emergency action and the costs associated with going to court.”
Many of the submissions also reveal just how far off the Government’s assumptions have been about take-up of ADR, mediation and voluntary support as replacements for legal help. For example, contrary to the government’s objective of more separating couples choosing mediation as an option for resolving family disputes, publicly funded mediation numbers have dramatically fallen; between April and November 2013, the total number of family mediation starts in England and Wales fell by over a third (36%), compared to the same period in 2012. There were 665 mediation starts in November 2013 compared with 1,173 in November 2012, a 57% drop and only 26 legal help with mediation claims, where lawyers provide independent legal advice to those in the mediation process, in the same period; the number of people attending Mediation Information & Assessment Meetings in October 2013 also fell by 57% compared to 2012. The Ministry of Justice admit as much in their own submission to the Committee.
Similarly, out of scope social welfare issues may have displaced some demand but to sources that are ill equipped to help with root problems – Southwark Law Centre’s submission for example observes how baby bank distributing food and nappy to mothers with destitute babies has opened recently in the borough which they believe is due to the lack of legal advice available to mothers regarding their immigration rights and the unlawful imposition of the “no recourse to public funds” restriction on leave.
Finally, none of the Inquiry’s respondents had much time for the exceptional funding scheme, with providers complaining that all their attempts to get exceptional funding for their clients had been unsuccessful. The British Red Cross submission for example noted how, despite being an entitlement under national and international law, it has been impossible to get any exceptional funding for refugee family re-union cases; such cases were excluded from normal scope under LASPO as they were deemed “generally straightforward,” yet they are some of the most complex cases in the immigration system.
None of this comes as news to the Low Commission as we have been taking evidence on these issues for over a year, and trying to come up with solutions. It simply underlines the importance and urgency of taking a fresh look at social welfare advice and legal support issues in the round, and the need for coherent strategy from Government both centrally and locally. Yes resources are tight, and will remain so with continuing pressure on public funding – but policymakers need to think more holistically and accept that there might be so that there might be more effective financial savings in saving people from misery.
James is campaigns and research manager to the Low Commission