1 Introduction |
THE BACKGROUND AND EFFECT OF LASPO
1. In 2010 the incoming Government developed plans
to cut public spending significantly. The Ministry of Justice
(MoJ) was required to find budget cuts of around £2billion
from an overall budget of £9.8billion. Part 1 of the Legal
Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was
intended substantially to reduce the civil legal aid budget by
removing whole areas of law from scope and changing the financial
eligibility criteria. Schedule 1 contained the exceptions to the
removal from scope. The LASPO scheme was introduced alongside
other policy changes including a reduction in the fees paid to
providers. LASPO also
made provision for the abolition of the Legal Services Commission,
the arms-length body responsible for deciding legal aid applications,
after its accounts were again qualified. The Legal Aid Agency,
an executive agency of the MoJ, was created to carry out the former
functions of the Commission.
OBJECTIVES OF LASPO
2. In the final Equality Impact Assessment accompanying
the Bill the MoJ set out that its objectives for the proposed
legislation were to:
unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense;
· target legal
aid to those who need it most;
· make significant
savings in the cost of the scheme; and
· deliver better
overall value for money for the taxpayer.
3. In its submission to this inquiry the Ministry
of Justice said that its decisions on changes to scope were guided
by four factors which aimed to ensure that public funding remained
available for those cases that most merited it. These factors
i. the importance of the issue: cases involving
the individual's life, liberty, physical safety and homelessness
were considered to be a high priority, as were cases where the
individual faces intervention from the state, or seeks to hold
the state to account;
ii. the litigant's ability to present their own
case: considerations included the type of forum in which the proceedings
are held, whether they are inquisitorial or adversarial, whether
litigants bringing proceedings were likely to be from a predominantly
physically or emotionally vulnerable group (for example, as a
result of their age, disability or the traumatising circumstances
in which the proceedings are being brought);
iii. the availability of alternative sources
of funding: where litigants are able to fund their case in other
ways, for example through a Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA), legal
insurance, or as a member of a trade union;
iv. the availability of other routes to resolution:
in determining the priority for certain types of case, we considered
whether people might be able to access other sources of advice
to help resolve their problems, avoiding the need for court proceedings.
Examples include, advice on welfare benefits, (housing and other
benefits), or the availability of an ombudsman scheme, or complaints
4. The changes contained in Part 1 of LASPO came
into effect on 1 April 2013. We acknowledge that it is early to
be assessing the impact of the reforms. The importance of legal
aid for access to justice, however, requires that changes to public
funding for legal advice must be closely monitored. The common
law right to access a court is a cornerstone of our democracy.
In his book, The Rule of Law, the late Lord Bingham said
that one of the ingredients of the rule of law itself was that
"means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive
cost or inordinate delay, bona fide disputes which the parties
are unable themselves to resolve" and "denial of legal
protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one
enemy of the rule of law."
We agree. We have therefore undertaken this inquiry to examine
the success of the legal aid reforms in protecting access to justice
while addressing issues of cost, and to make recommendations where
we believe access to justice has been compromised.
5. Our terms of reference for this inquiry were:
1) What have been the overall effects of
the LASPO changes on access to justice? Are there any particular
areas of law or categories of potential litigants which have seen
particularly pronounced effects?
2) What are the identifiable trends in overall
numbers of legally-aided civil law cases being brought since April
2013 in comparison with previous periods, and what are the reasons
for those trends?
3) Have the LASPO changes led to the predicted
reductions in the legal aid budget? Has any evidence come to light
of cost-shifting or cost escalation as a result of the changes?
4) What effects have the LASPO changes had
on (a) legal practitioners and (b) not-for-profit providers of
legal advice and assistance?
5) What effects have the LASPO changes had
on the number of cases involving litigants-in-person, and therefore
on the operation of the courts? What steps have been taken by
the judiciary, the legal profession, courts administration and
others to mitigate any adverse effects and how effective have
those steps been?
6) What effects have the LASPO changes had
on the take-up of mediation services and other alternative dispute
resolution services, and what are the reasons for those effects?
7) What is your view on the quality and usefulness
of the available information and advice from all sources to potential
litigants on civil legal aid? Do you have any comments on the
operation of the mandatory telephone gateway service for people
accessing advice on certain matters?
8) To what extent are victims of domestic
violence able to satisfy the eligibility and evidential requirements
for a successful legal aid application?
9) Is the exceptional cases funding operating
6. The Committee has received written and oral evidence
from a wide range of individuals and organisations and we are
very grateful to all of them for providing that evidence and contributing
to this inquiry.
1 Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, NAO,
HC 784, Session 2014-15, November 2014 Back
Equality Impact Assessment, Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment
of Offenders Bill para. 15 Back
The Rule of Law, Allen Lane, London, 2010, page 88 Back