Legal aid lawyers have accused the Legal Aid Agency of being more focused on ‘refusing legal aid’ than ensuring that those who are entitled to public funding receive it. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group this morning published a ‘manifesto’ calling for the LAA to be scrapped, for the reinstatement of early legal advice and reversing some of 2013 legal aid cuts echoing many of the calls made by the Bach Commission on Access to Justice.
Writing in the foreword, LAPG co-chairs Jenny Beck and Nicola Mackintosh QC argued that the justice system was ‘in crisis’. ‘Legal aid was created to make sure that justice was available for all, whether rich or poor,’ they say. ‘The current system is failing to do that. Those who can afford it can buy the right to access justice; the most vulnerable in our society no longer have that right. Urgent action is needed to protect the rights of ordinary people and to ensure that we have a legal aid system, and therefore a justice system, which not only works today, but also for future generations.’
You can read the manifesto here.
The LAPG gives ‘wholehearted support’ to the Bach Commission’s proposal of a new Right to Justice Act. ‘However in the meantime action is urgently required to remedy some of the most damaging impacts of LASPO,’ it argues.
The LAPG manifesto argues that the legal aid system needs to be run by an organisation that is ‘wholly independent’ of government. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) was replaced the Legal Services Commission in 2013. The group noted the LAA’s £95m admin budget for last year ‘despite this being a period of austerity’ and at a time of cuts to frontline staff. Since 2013 the group argued that the complexity of satisfying the LAA’s admin requirements had ‘increased beyond recognition’ and the ‘burden of the bureaucracy has fallen on their shoulders’.
The experience of LAPG members was that the quality of decision-making by the LAA was ‘deteriorating’. ‘Many practitioners perceive that the [LAA’s] drivers seem to be focused more on refusing legal aid, and disallowing claims for costs for work done under the legal aid scheme, rather than with ensuring that those who are legally entitled to legal aid are able to access it, and making sure that the legal aid practitioners who provide the services to clients are properly paid,’ the manifesto said.
The group called for ‘a comprehensive review’ of the appeals process. ‘We have received reports of the LAA omitting to send crucial documents to adjudicators, resulting in inherent unfairness in the appeals process,’ it said.
The LAPG argued that there was ‘no proper evidence base’ as to the viability of organisations delivering legal aid on the current rates. ‘In many categories of civil law, there was a 10% cut in rates in 2011 rates, themselves set in 1994, over 23 years ago,’ it said. ‘In criminal legal aid, on top of years of fee freezes, there has been an 8.75 per cent cut in rates, making the system increasingly unviable.’
The LAPG called the LASPO reforms of the means testing regime ‘overcomplicated, with unnecessary bureaucracy, resulting in additional cost to the taxpayer’. The group proposed 14 recommendations in relation to the means test including that the capital test be scrapped; restoring the equity disregard for a client’s home; removing the cap on housing costs which can be disregarded (currently £545 per month maximum); reviewing allowances for dependants so that they reflect the real cost of living; removing children’s savings from the calculation of capital and student loans from the means calculation; revisiting the levels of contribution in domestic abuse cases; and a simplification of the process ‘to save costs for both the LAA and practitioners, and, therefore, the taxpayer’.
The reported highlighted practitioner’s unhappiness with the LAA’s digital Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) which, it said, had ‘arguably pushed the supplier base to an operational precipice’.
LAPG Manifesto recommendations
- Reinstating early legal advice, subject to a proper means test, which will result in people being equipped to solve their problems at an early stage;
- Changes to the scope of legal aid in family, housing and welfare benefits, employment, inquests, prison and immigration law to rectify some of the worst aspects of the cuts, and to make sure that people have access to the help they need to resolve their legal problems more quickly and cost effectively;
- A practitioner-led review of the operation of and sustainability of the criminal justice system, where cost is wasted, and how the quality of the criminal justice system can be improved and made more efficient;
- A review of financial eligibility, to ensure that people who cannot afford to pay for legal advice are able to access legal aid;
- Independent administration of the legal aid system, and an independent review of fees for legal aid, to preserve public faith in the legal aid scheme and ensure sustainable provision;
- Restoration of funding for judicial review cases, to hold public bodies to account;
- Simplification of the legal aid scheme, to avoid unnecessary cost and improve efficiency; and
- A public legal information programme, to make sure people know what legal aid is available
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