Falling Through The Justice Gap
The justice system in England and Wales is in a funding crisis, hurting the most disadvantaged and marginalised in society. Legal aid was introduced in England and Wales at the same time as the welfare state but, where 80% were once eligible, now less than a third of the population qualify for civil justice support.
Reductions to the legal aid budget have been ongoing for a quarter of a century as arguments around supposed ‘fat-cat lawyers’ were used to cloud an ideological clampdown on state provision for the vulnerable. It was the coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) which most severely restricted the state provision of funding for civil justice.
This move to slash spending on justice came as part of the wider coalition austerity programme and impacted on issues such as benefits and housing with large areas of law now removed from state-funded provision. These are areas of law that affect people who are already struggling to get the help they might need.
For example, in the year before the coalition reforms, 91,000 people received legal advice for welfare benefits cases – often crucial early intervention that can stop simple problems of provision spiralling into debt and repossessions. After LASPO, legal advice for such cases fell by 99% to only 478 people; especially worrying considering the damaging changes to the benefits system and the problems with assessment processes.
People on incomes up to 30% below the minimum living standard are effectively excluded from legal aid even if they qualify. Due to an unrealistic means test, many must contribute to their own representation – perhaps out of their benefits – keeping it out of reach for many people. This means that people who are already worried must navigate complicated legal processes alone with only the help of bonline guides and, if they are lucky, some pro bono support.
Another emerging problem is the rise of advice deserts, which the Law Society identifies as an area where advice is unavailable through legal aid or there is only one local provider. For example, nearly a third of England and Wales are housing advice deserts: people on low incomes facing homelessness and eviction willl struggle to get the advice they need even though they are legally entitled to it.
The government published their long-awaited review of LASPO earlier this year, informed by feedback from practitioners and campaigners highlighting that access to justice is being failed. The end result was the promise of a mere £8 million of new money – £5 million of which will go to IT.
Technological fixes are unlikely to help people in advice desserts, many of whom are older and need face-to-face support in a community. Vulnerable groups, in particular, risk being let down by the drive for some digital revolution that fails to understand that their specific needs require advice provided in person.
The rest of the new money will go to supporting litigants-in-person to find their way in the confusing legal system. While this is an important acknowledgment of a growing problem for access to justice, it is a drop in the ocean considering LASPO cut nearly a third of the total legal aid budget.
£3 million cannot adequately replace the £751 million lost from LASPO. The review does little to support providers struggling to maintain their services let alone encourage advice centres to move back into areas that need more support.
Cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget over the last decade have been much deeper than other government departments. While overall government spending grew by 13% since 2008, funding for justice fell 27%.
It is clear that access to justice has lost out under the austerity programme and will continue to do so if such pitiful sums are offered to compensate for the damage done, especially considering that we are supposedly moving beyond austerity.
The Fabian Society have proposed a Right to Justice Act, establishing a new right for individuals to receive legal assistance without costs they cannot afford. Labour are following these recommendations, speaking about restoring funding for early advice, investing in Law Centres to fill the gaps and training new lawyers to replace those who have left.
Justice on the cheap is no justice at all, and protecting some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised in our society should be the priority on the political agenda.
By Dr Daniel Newman, Lecturer at Cardiff Law School and working on the Justice in a Time of Austerity project in collaboration with Jon Robins of the Justice Gap reporting on the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts.