The government was called upon to ‘seize the moment before it was too late’ and reverse the damage done by ‘unsustainable’ legal aid cuts in a Westminster Hall debate last night on the ongoing LASPO review.
According to the Labour MP Karen Buck who introduced the debate, the review marked an opportunity ‘to learn from what has gone wrong and to put it right’. It came within days of widespread confusion over civil legal aid contracts due to begin at the start of the month. Firms were left waiting to receive the new 2018 contracts. Buck invited the minister to respond to the latest ‘contract debacle’. ‘It would be helpful if the Minister said something about how that is going to be swiftly resolved.’
The MP continued: ‘Almost every aspect of the legal aid debacle was predicted and objected to at the time, hence the large number of defeats in the other place—only very minor, although welcome, adjustments have been made since. There is an opportunity in this review to learn from what has gone wrong and to put it right. The moment must be seized before it is too late.’
The call for evidence under the LASPO review closes at the end of the month and the report is due to be published at the end of the year. The MP pointed out that no minutes had been published nor independent research commissioned.
Buck also addressed the pressures on legal aid lawyers ‘damaging morale and undermining the legal profession’s ability to undertake legal aid work’. ‘In the area of criminal law, data suggest that in five to 10 years’ time, there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions of the country, leaving those in need of legal advice unable to access their rights,’ she added.
The justice minister Lucy Frazer insisted that the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviewed the market to assess capacity around the country. ‘In a recent retender of face-to-face contracts, it received tenders from more than 1,700 organisations that wished to deliver face-to-face civil legal aid work,’ she said. ‘Those organisations submitted more than 4,300 individual bids, so it is confident that a good quantity of people are providing work at the moment.
Buck quoted the housing lawyer Russell Conway that legal aid lawyers were ‘hanging on by the skin of their teeth’. ‘Worse still large numbers of clients cannot get access. Yesterday I turned away 10 prospective housing clients as their cases were no longer within scope,’ he said.
The latest statistics relating to the provision of legal aid confirm exactly that. Total legal aid expenditure has fallen by £600 million since 2013. The number of legal aid and controlled legal representation claims fell from 188,643 to 92,124—in other words, they halved. Mediation starts more than halved, and the number of providers has plunged by 800 in criminal law and 1,200 in civil law.
The Labour MP Andy Slaughter said that opposition had ‘crystallised’ around the issue of eligibility for early funding, particularly in housing and law on family reunion. ‘I hope there will be specific concessions when the review takes place in those areas and perhaps in others,’ he said. He also hoped that the Legal Aid Agency’s lack of independence would be addressed. ‘The way the system is run is quite shocking.’
Lucy Frazer pointed out that there had been concessions and, for example, since the Government broadened the evidence allowed for domestic violence and removed time limits, there had been a 21% increase in applications for legal aid for domestic violence and ‘a record number’ of legal aid grants made.
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