The Decrease of Legal Aid after the LASPO Act

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Following the general election in 2010, the incoming Cameron-Clegg coalition government had made significant plans to reduce the national deficit by cutting public spending. Pressure was applied on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to reduce the annual £2.1 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by approximately £350 million. The initiative was the implantation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO Act) on the 1st of April 2013, which significantly reduced the civil legal aid budget by removing a wide range of law from scope and narrowing down the eligibility criteria. Legal aid is payment provided from public funds to help meet the costs of legal advice and representation in court or tribunal. Although, this received a lot of opposition in the parliament it was passed with high hopes. Unfortunately, the consequences of the LASPO act outweigh the positive impacts it has had.

The LASPO Act was introduced for many reasons. Including a way to eliminate ‘unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense’. After a staggering 18% increase in the number of people claiming for personal injury compensation, the coalition government set out plans to reform ‘compensation culture’ between 2010-2015. Compensation culture is a trend whereby people have developed an unnecessary dependency and sense of entitlement to legal compensation, thus using an irrational amount of money from public expenses. Another reason the LASPO Act was developed was to ensure that legal aid was reserved for those in society who needed it the most. Legal aid is still available for issues regarded as high priority case, such as danger to an individual’s life, physical safety, liberty and homelessness. This would also include cases to do with the state, whether it is an intervention from the state or seeking to hold the state accountable. Additionally, The LASPO Act was proposed to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. The removal of funding for areas of law including private family law, personal injury and employment law has led to a cut of £350 million. After the introduction of the LASPO Act, legal aid funding has decreased from £2.2 billion in 2005-06 to £1.5 billion in 2018. This means that public spending was reduced, and money could be focused elsewhere.

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However, the LASPO Act has not been smooth-sailing, as the introduction has brought many consequences which has jeopardised people’s lives. The removal of family law from scope, which includes support for private family law, divorce and custody battle, is targeting the most vulnerable in society. Particularly, children who are exposed and affected by the LASPO Act. The introduction of LASPO has made it more difficult for children and their representatives to access legal advice or representation. This is particularly unjust for lone children, children living in unofficial private foster homes, stuck in border adoption arrangements or migrant children. If they do not meet the criteria for legal aid, they would be forced to represent for themselves. On the 31st of March 2018, 70 720 children who were taken into care, including 55 200 children who are currently living with foster families would be affected by the LASPO Act and would not meet the eligibility criteria. Not only is this unfair due to the age and the complexity of the justice system, but for migrant children are affected by the language barrier and would possibly not be able to comprehend the situation. The NAO report on civil legal aid changes exhibits a 22% rise in the number of private family law cases involving children whereby neither the child or their representative had a legal representation. Furthermore, the consequence of forcing a child to represent themselves in court can be argued to be bordering illegal. It is stated in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), that British citizens have the right to fair trial, including children. A child’s inability to converse and understand the system exhibits that they are not fit for fair trial. This therefore breaches the ECHR. Legal aid is crucial to a fair justice system as justice should not depend on one’s ability to pay.

The effects of the consequences do not stop there. The accessibility of legal advice has become scarce and more difficult to find as support simply is not available in some areas of England and Wales. Since the introduction of the LASPO Act civil legal aid providers, including solicitor firms and not-for-profit organisations have decreased significantly, from 4253 providers in 2011-2012 to 2824 in 2017-2018. The LASPO Act has also led to the closure of 10 Law Centres and services and leaving many struggling to be economically viable. Additionally, having a single legal aid provider in one area can cause many issues. Particularly for people from a low-income background who simply cannot afford to travel to see a provider that is far way. Not being able to receive early legal advice can lead to extreme circumstance, such as homelessness. A study shows that the volume of legally aided housing cases reduced by almost 50% between the months of July to September in 2012 and July to September 2013. The dramatic reduction in housing cases has continues, with a further 17% between 2015-2016. Nevertheless, the 2016 governmental homelessness statistic shows that number of households has risen by 55%, from 48 010 on 31st of December 2010 to 74 630 in 30th of September 2016. The lack of centres and hardship to find legal advice promotes an unfair justice system.

Another consequence of the LASPO Act is that lack of early legal advice is not sustainable. Not being able to achieve simple and early stage advice for issues can prevent someone from extreme circumstances, for example homelessness. Children, unable to afford legal aid – can end up living in poverty for the rest of their lives, or it could leave to criminal offences and delinquency due to unresolved legal issues. Unfortunately, children are indirectly affected by the LASPO Act, as family law cases are outside the scope of legal aid. As issues like this will affect who they live with and their financial support. Issues like these can have a major impact on the child and its well-being, Therefore a child could potentially spend the rest of their life in poverty. Furthermore, research shows that the average young person who has civil legal problem costs services, such as housing, social and health, around £13 000, if they are not able to obtain early advice. However, research proves that unresolved civil legal problems can increase a child’s likelihood of criminal offending and delinquency.

One of the government’s objectives were to eliminate ‘unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense’. Although, this was achieved by cutting the £2.1 billion budget to £1.6 billion, the LASPO Act has increased the public expense to be used elsewhere. This is so it can remedy the damages the LASPO Act caused, due to the lack of free, trustworthy and well-timed legal advice. This will mean further costs to taxpayers and increased pressure on public services. However, a freedom of information request to the MoJ shows that children that were eligible for legal aid regarding education has dropped by 85% and legal aid for divorced or separated parents has dropped by 69%. The people who decide to represent themselves as they are not able to afford it, litigants in person cause problems and strains on finances and resources. in 2014, a study shows that the increase in litigants in person in family courts cost to the MoJ £3.4 million. Furthermore, unresolved social welfare issues in young adults between the age of 16-24, can cost the government £1 billion a year. This only proves that the there was no elimination of ‘unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense’, as the money would be spent on recovering the effects of the LASPO Act.

To conclude, I do not believe the implementation of the LASPO Act was necessary. The main objectives of the Act were to ensure that legal aid was available for people in society who needed it the most. Nonetheless, the removal of family law from scope, which includes essential legal aid and representation for children was not given to thousands of children. This meaning that they would be representing themselves in front of a court or tribunal. Not only is this illegal, as children are not fit for trial under section 6 of the ECHR, but it also puts their life in danger and it has life-long effects on them. Furthermore, the LASPO Act came with the intention to reform the law and cut legal aid budget, but instead a vast amount of money was dedicated to mend the damages that the Act had caused. The government could be spending nearly £1 billion a year to solve damages occurred due to unresolved social welfare issues in children between 16-24.

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