1.This is an important moment in the history of legal aid in England and Wales. After a decade of adjusting to the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), the Government and the professions are focused on trying to find solutions to improve the legal aid system and access to justice. As Richard Miller, head of the Justice Team at the Law Society, wrote in December 2020 “for the first time in two decades, it feels like the public debate is about how to improve legal aid, instead of how to stop further cuts”. At the time of writing the Government has initiated the following:
These reviews could provide the foundation for a positive future for legal aid over the next decade.
2.This inquiry into the future of legal aid was launched on 7 September 2020. The terms of reference were designed to evaluate the current legal aid system in England and Wales, and to look ahead to identify areas that need reform. We received more than 80 written submissions and are grateful to everyone who provided evidence.
3.The justice system in England and Wales cannot function effectively without a sustainable legal aid profession. On 24 March 2021, Lord Wolfson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, told us:
The purpose of legal aid is to enable people to vindicate their legal rights. That is true for criminal legal aid and civil legal aid. We need a sufficient number of people in the profession in order to enable people to have access to that advice.
We agree. However, on the evidence submitted to this inquiry, we are concerned that there are not enough legal aid providers in certain areas, and without urgent action, that situation is certain to worsen over the next decade. Lord Wolfson also accepted that “a system which means that people cannot vindicate their legal rights is a legal aid system that is not working”. Legal Service Board data suggests that 3.6 million people have an unmet legal need involving a dispute each year. The number of providers of criminal defence services is also decreasing significantly. This suggests that the current legal aid system is not working. Lord Wolfson suggested to us that the way forward will require a fundamental change of approach:
[w]e do not live in a world, and we increasingly will not live in a world, where the only way to vindicate your legal right is by going to somebody called a solicitor and ending up in a building with the word “Court” outside it. There will be other ways to vindicate your legal rights. Courts will operate in different ways.
While we recognise the merit in this view, the rule of law and access to justice cannot wait for the Minister’s vision to become reality. The Minister affirmed his, and the department’s, commitment to the rule of law. That is welcome. Nevertheless, one of best ways to judge the Government’s commitment to the rule of law and access to justice will be on whether it delivers ambitious reforms to the legal aid system in response to this report and those due to be published this year.
4.Based on the evidence submitted to this inquiry, we suggest five themes, all of which are derived from the principle of access to justice, that should characterise the Government’s approach to reforming legal aid:
All the recommendations in this report are informed by these themes. Technology will also play a role in shaping the future of legal aid. We believe that technology should be used where it can be shown to make legal information and advice more accessible and where it can work to complement face-to-face services. Digital services should not, though, be inappropriately substituted for traditional advice, representation and support.
5.The Committee recognises that in relation to legal aid in particular the public will not want to see expenditure that is uncontrolled or unreasonable. There is also public debate about which areas the available legal aid expenditure should focus upon. We also acknowledge that the Government will always need to balance competing demands for resources.
Box 1: The legal aid budget
In 2019–20, net operating expenditure for the Ministry of Justice was £8.43 billion. Net operating expenditure on legal aid was around £1.76 billion or approximately 21% of the total:
Source: Ministry of Justice Annual Report and Accounts 2019–20
6.The case studies below, taken from organisations who submitted evidence to our inquiry, illustrate what sort of services legal aid provides.
Legal aid makes a difference to vulnerable people. We pay tribute to those lawyers who help people navigate the complexities of the legal system and enforce their rights.
1 Richard Miller, , Law Society Gazette, 17 December 2020
4 Legal Services Board ()
6 Access Social Care, Choice Support, Association of Mental Health Providers, Mencap Croydon, Avenues, Mencap, Dimensions, Milestones Trust, United Response, Age UK + National Autistic Society ()
7 Dr Sascha Holden, , Families Together, October 2021
8 Mary Ward Legal Centre ()