Speak Up For Justice
The Law Of... speaking up for justice'In England, justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel'.
Although this quote is widely attributed to the nineteenth century Irish judge, Sir James Mathew, it continues to resonate today. These sentiments are brought into sharp focus by the contents of the recently published report from Speak Up For Justice
which considers the impacts of the government’s reforms to legal aid and court services on access to justice.
Although legal aid was first introduced in 1949 as a principal pillar of the welfare state, rounds of cuts in 2004, 2007 and 2010 have steadily chipped away at the rules on financial eligibity and scope for claimants as well as rates of remuneration for lawyers undertaking the work. Far reaching cuts were imposed by the 2013 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) intended to slash the yearly legal aid budget by £320m from 2014, and by another £220m each year by 2018. There is very little political will on the part of either of the main parties to reverse the position. At the best of times legal aid is a non-issue for the public and there is little political capital to be gained by any of the political parties making it an issue.
The reality which must now be faced is that huge areas of civil law have now been removed from the scope of legal aid. All family law cases that don't involve domestic violence are no longer covered. Immigration cases are only covered if they involve claims for asylum, human rights issues or domestic violence. Benefits, debt and housing cases are also ineligible, unless there is a direct threat of homelessness. Criminal cases remain in scope, subject to means testing. LASPO's original proposal to remove client choice from solicitor allocation has been overturned.
The report’s authors considered the impact conducted extensive research including:
- A survey of staff working in the justice sector, particularly courts, legal advice and representation and probation
- Interviews with representatives from organisations/coalitions who have expertise in the justice sector and who work with people accessing justice services
- Submission of Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice
- Analysis of statistics produced by the Legal Aid Agency
Interviews were carried out with representatives from: the Howard League for Penal Reform, Islington Law Centre, the Justice Alliance, the Law Society, Rights of Women, Simpson Millar LLP Solicitors and Women’s Aid. Findings indicate that the government’s reforms to legal aid have had a devastating impact on women’s access to justice. In particular, women who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing domestic violence are being put at greater risk, along with their children.
More widely, access to justice is also being denied to many in need of help, advice and representation in areas of civil law. This is ironic given the government’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015. Some of the key points raised by interviewees included:
- Women and children are having unsafe contact with perpetrators of domestic violence. Legal aid cuts have meant that the ability to protect the child is more limited due to lack of access to representation
- Access to legal aid has to be front and centre of any government strategy to tackle violence against women and girls
- The government’s reforms to legal aid have been devastating and denied justice to thousands of people, including some of the most vulnerable, in the civil area
- Changes to legal aid have been focused on cuts and the higher threshold now means that there is limited means for people to enforce their rights
- Financial savings from reforms to prison law legal aid are tiny. But the human and social cost is huge and out of kilter with the rest of the government’s policy
- Demand for justice services remains high, but meeting the needs of those who require help is now more challenging following government reforms and cuts to legal aid
- Court closures will have an enormous impact on justice around the country, as witnesses may not be able to get to a local court now
- There are few areas left in the scope of civil legal aid and fewer lawyers are taking on the work due to cuts in fees and their income. Undertaking legal aid work is no longer viable for some firms
Legal aid lawyers are also finding that cuts make it harder to work on the complex interlocking problems that affect their most vulnerable clients
. The report concludes that these cuts are lessening the effective and efficient delivery of justice services.
The financial case for these cuts is also called into question. Catherine Lee, director of access to justice at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), admitted to the House of Commons’ public accounts committee at the end of 2014 that her department ‘didn’t have the time to do the research at the time given the urgency of the cuts’. This paints a worrying picture. Slashing the legal aid budget merely creates a need which has to be met from another area of public finance. The third sector has tried to plug the gaps created by the cuts. Organisations such as the Personal Services Unit (PSU) provide support to ensure people do not have to face court alone. However, not all courts can be supported by the PSU and they cannot give advice or provide representation. The PSU relies heavily on charitable donations to deliver their services which cannot be a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system.
The report makes the following clear recommendations:
- The government should ensure that access to legal aid is based on need and enables people to enforce their human right to justice
- The Ministry of Justice should carry out immediate and in-depth assessments of the impacts of budget cuts, LASPO and reforms to court services on access to justice. These should be done in collaboration with organisations with expertise in this field, those who use the justice system and other government departments
- There should be a moratorium on further budget and staffing cuts in the justice sector until the above assessments have been carried out
- There should be a pause on any further court closures until the government assesses the impacts of the last round of closures on access to justice, and on the potential impacts of the current round of closures. Technology should be developed in collaboration with staff and fully tested before being rolled out across court services
- Justice services should be seen as interconnected and inter-dependent and based within the context of wider public services
Therefore any reforms should be viewed within a whole-system approach. The justice system should be recognised as a public service and a public good, and future government reforms should always take an evidence-based approach.It is generally accepted that access to justice is a fundamental right. However, this right has been dramatically eroded by the recent cuts to legal aid and other cuts. Another fundamental issue is at play here, that of the rule of law. Without a properly funded legal system, including provision for the most vulnerable, there is no right of access to justice. Without access to justice there can be no rule of law.