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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

4. What steps she is taking to assess the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on access to justice. (906941)

We are grateful to the Minister for that reply, but I think he may want to take question 15 with question 4.

It is very good of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister to be willing to do what he asked me for permission to do; that is extraordinarily gracious of him.

15. What assessment she has made of the effect on people on low incomes of changes made to the legal aid system by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. (906953)

I thank the Minister for his answer to my question, but a TUC report of this October raised concerns that the Act is a barrier to access to justice for victims of domestic violence. The regulations concerning the provision of evidence of domestic violence are restrictive and narrow and have led to a 16% drop in applications and a 17% drop in applications granted. Is it not time the Secretary of State admitted that the Act is denying access to justice for thousands and must be amended?

It is of course important that legal aid is available for victims of domestic violence, particularly those seeking protective injunctions. On the evidence requirements, in April we more than doubled the time limit on evidence from two to five years, and we have introduced a provision that allows the Legal Aid Agency to grant legal aid if it is satisfied that an application demonstrates financial abuse. This is important and it has been varied in the light of experience over the last two or three years, and we will continue to monitor it.

Access to justice and legal aid are pillars of the welfare state, yet almost one third of legal aid areas in England and Wales have one or no housing advice providers, including the legal aid area covering my constituency. One provider is not enough, so what steps will the Government take to ensure there are at least two providers for each area?

It is important to recognise that housing cases where a person’s home is at risk fall within the scope of legal aid. The Law Society has raised concerns, as the hon. Gentleman will know. There are a lot of these cases in some parts of the country, but very few in other parts. What we have done is, through the Legal Aid Agency, taken active steps to ensure that there is adequate provision of housing advice around the country.

On the point about one or two providers, there are some places where one firm is providing a range of offices and functions across a number of clients, and other areas where the circumstances only really require that there should be something like a telephone hotline, which there is. The provision that is being made is what is needed.

There seem to be conflicting reports on the Government’s position on raising the cost bar for personal injury claims from £1,000 to £5,000. I would be grateful to hear what the Government’s position is.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The Government have been looking at this issue. I do not think we have made a formal announcement on it yet, and therefore I will write to him giving him the absolute latest position.

What assessment has the Minister made of the recent report by Amnesty International, which has found that insufficient resources for legal aid are creating a two-tier judicial system?

It is important that legal aid is available in the most serious cases, such as those in which life or liberty is involved, a person’s home is at risk, domestic violence is involved, or children are being taken away from their families. That is the legal aid provision that we have here. The hon. Lady claims that that is a two-tier system, but we claim that it is one that is targeted on need.

I should declare an indirect interest, in that my wife is a legal aid solicitor and part-time judge. The previous Lord Chancellor promised a review of LASPO. The legislation has not worked. It is a complete and utter shambles, and it urgently needs a review. When will it be properly reviewed?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a promise was made that the Act would be reviewed within three years and five years of implementation—[Interruption.] Yes, within the period starting at three years and going up to five years. That period has just started, and an announcement will be made in due course.

Exceptional case funding was introduced as part of LASPO with the aim of ensuring that out-of-scope cases with exceptional circumstances would have access to legal aid. Between 2013 and 2016, 4,032 applications were made but, due to the stringency of the criteria, a staggering 3,081 of those applications were not granted. Will the Minister commit to broadening the criteria for exceptional case funding to allow more people to become eligible for this safety net and to increase access to justice for those who need it most?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The number of cases being applied for and granted is rising, but there is also the question of ensuring that people who might need this funding are aware of it. That is an important part of the picture. Exceptional needs funding is a vital part of the picture and we will certainly keep it under review. If she wants to raise a detailed point with me about how it is operating, I would be more than happy either to discuss it with her or to enter into correspondence about it.