I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of legal aid.
It is a pleasure indeed to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am delighted that we have three hours to debate the important and complex subject of the future of legal aid. Let me begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time, the many hon. Members in attendance and the cross-party group, More United, which has championed this issue and pressed successfully for this debate.
We are in Justice Week, the aim of which is to show the significance of justice and the rule of law to every citizen in our society and to register the importance of an effective justice system beyond the usual audience of professions and practitioners. That aim is reflected in the many representations and briefings we have received in preparation for this debate. They have come not only, as one might expect, from the Law Society, the Law Centres Federation, LawWorks and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but from Mencap, Mind, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Youth Access and the Refugee Council. The message is that legal aid is important to everyone, but particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable.
I extend my thanks to those organisations not only for their help for today, but for the work that they do every day to support the justice system and those who need to navigate it. Indeed, I extend thanks to all the legal aid lawyers outside the House, not least my own local law centre in Hammersmith and Fulham, which is ably led by Sue James, last year’s legal aid lawyer of the year. I extend thanks also to those in the House who do the same, not least the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck).
My final thanks are as follows. It would not be right to let a debate on this subject pass without acknowledging the work of Carol Storer, the director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for the past decade, who is leaving this month. There will be other opportunities to mark her outstanding contribution as an advocate and organiser for the whole legal aid community, but I know that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will have benefited from her skill and knowledge and been on the receiving end of her charm and persuasion.
I am sure that the Minister will have good news for Carol and all those I have mentioned when she responds both today and in the post-implementation review of part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—hereinafter LASPO. It was good to hear the Minister confirm this week at the APPG that the review will be published before the end of the year. I know by that she does not mean, “By way of written ministerial statement on the last sitting day.” Obviously, that will not be the case, because it is going to be good news and the Government will want to boast about it.
This is a complex and many-faceted subject, and I will not be able to cover all areas and concerns, so let me start with my requests to the Minister, because I do not want them to get lost. We have just heard from the Chair of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), that cuts to prisons are causing serious deterioration in the health and welfare of prisoners. We should not be surprised. The Ministry of Justice budget will be cut by almost half in little more than a decade of continuing austerity. It is the biggest cut to any Department, and it is a relatively small Department, with only three major areas of spend. Inevitably, all three areas—not only prisons and probation and the courts service, but legal aid—are going through debilitating change. My first request to the Minister is that she tackle the funding issue head on. No one is saying that all the cuts since 2010 will be reversed, or that the clock will be turned back, but if the Government wish to honour their stated objectives for LASPO, and in particular,
“To target legal aid at those who need it most”,
they must put something extra in the pot.
My hon. Friend will remember when we sat on the Bill Committee and warned of the intended and potentially unintended consequences of the cuts and changes being made. Does he agree that the nightmare for people desperately in need of legal aid for everything from housing to medical negligence cases has been worse than expected, and that justice has certainly been denied to them?
Yes. I will come on to the actual, rather than the predicted, effect of LASPO. Without spoiling the surprise, we will find that the Government have overachieved in cutting budgets and underachieved in every other respect.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he give way on that point?
Of course I will give way to the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is those very vulnerable people who find themselves feeling that they have been victims of miscarriages of justice? The Criminal Cases Review Commission was at our meeting yesterday and it explained that a lack of resources inhibits its ability to process the number of cases it would like to. The cuts in legal aid mean that many people are faced with representing themselves in very complex situations.
That is not something we discussed during the passage of LASPO, because the impact on criminal law seemed relatively mild compared with the effect on civil law, but that came afterwards. Now, eligibility restrictions and the reduced availability of legal aid practitioners as a result of cuts mean that people often go into court unrepresented, even in quite serious matters, which of course increases the risk of miscarriages of justice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the impact of the Government’s policies has not fallen evenly on all members of the population and that women have been particularly affected? Often, they will represent themselves and be repeatedly brought back to court by a perpetrator, perhaps their ex-partner, and have to face the trauma all over again. That has been a particularly damaging result of the changes introduced by the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling).
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Rightly, more attention has been focused on domestic violence than on perhaps any other single issue. Although changes have been made, they are nugatory as far as the Government are concerned. In many cases, women are still being victimised because of the changes that LASPO introduced, against the assurances given at the time.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I am concerned about the impact on sick and disabled people. In some cases, up to 90% of social security claimants on the employment and support allowance, the personal independence payment or the disability living allowance have been denied access to support as a result of the cuts, but 70% of people who go on to challenge the decision, in person or with a welfare advocate, will be successful in their claim. Is that not a real injustice?
The figures speak for themselves. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am responding to a series of powerful interventions. Across the board, matter starts have gone down from more than 900,000 at their peak in 2010, to about 140,000 in the past year. That is a dramatic fall, but in some areas, such as welfare benefits, the decline has been even sharper.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the absence of legal aid funding has driven legal aid solicitors and not-for-profit providers out of the market, which has left the door open to cowboy providers? They purport to be able to offer advice on immigration cases, for example, but that advice is poor quality, unreliable and, frankly, inaccurate, as I see repeatedly in my constituency.
My hon. Friend raises that issue from a position of knowledge, as she used to serve on the magistrates bench. There is a deskilling of the professions because of the decline in the number of practitioners who can secure funds. Although informal and non-legal advice, such as that from McKenzie friends, can play its part, too often it is stepping in where proper professional legal advice is needed and, as my hon. Friend has said, it is too often being done by people who are, effectively, rogues.
It becomes wearing to hear Minister after Minister repeat the mantra that legal aid is an important part of our legal system and that all individuals must have access to justice, without ensuring that the resources are there to allow that to happen. That is a disconnect. Although I welcome the remit and engagement of the LASPO review, the feedback from those who have met the Department suggests that little action will follow the warm words we have heard. More specifically, this week’s Budget confirmed that the Department will continue to make hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts over the next five years, some of which will inevitably come from the legal aid budget. The Minister must realise that that is unsustainable and incompatible with her stated support for legal aid.
Let me try to make it easy for the Minister to say yes. In garnering public support for this debate, More United specified three asks to put to the Government to deal with some of the worst consequences of LASPO, which were: access to early advice, access to welfare advice and simpler criteria for obtaining legal aid.
Those will not be unfamiliar requests to the Minister, but they encapsulate solutions to three major and predicted calamities of LASPO. First, cutting early advice means problems fail to get sorted while they are small and manageable, with worse consequences to the individual and the state down the line. Secondly, taking welfare advice out of scope leaves those people who need help most struggling. Thirdly, restrictive and complex eligibility criteria have become an effective way of stopping even those of very limited means getting access to what legal aid is still available.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. During the passage of the Bill, the Government said that they believed that withdrawing legal aid for family matters would increase mediation, but research shows a 56% decrease in mediation. The Law Society says that early advice from a solicitor was a significant source of referrals to mediation in family matters. I agree with that, and I wonder if my hon. Friend does too.
Yes. I will come on to mediation. My hon. Friend highlights two points: first, the lack of early advice and its consequences, and secondly, that the so-called alternatives put in place by the Government have failed, so we are left with effectively no safety net.
My hon. Friend is starting to build up quite a case on the issue. Sally Denton, a senior solicitor at the Nottingham Law Centre, made precisely that point about the importance of early advice:
“Given the massive changes to the benefit system coupled with the evidence that most people presenting as homeless to the local authority are doing so following the end of a private tenancy and the massive crisis in homelessness it is clear that failing to enable people to access early assistance with benefits issues will result in many losing their tenancies and either being homeless…or having to be accommodated by the local authorities”.
Do these savings in one area not just create much bigger costs in another?
My hon. Friend identifies the fact that by pulling away parts of the legal aid structure, the whole thing has collapsed in many areas. It is often the case that one problem, which may be housing or debt, is caused by another solvable problem, which is the lack of welfare benefits. Because they are not in receipt of welfare benefits, someone who would otherwise be eligible for legal aid may not qualify under the eligibility rules, and therefore the whole thing spirals down.
As I was saying, I have three specific requests. There are other discrete issues that I wish to mention and I will say a bit more about those in a minute, but I would like some indication from the Minister, when she responds to the debate, that at least these three specific requests are being considered as part of the review.
LASPO was billed as having four objectives,
“to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; to target legal aid at those who need it most; to make significant savings to the cost of the scheme; and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer.”
The Ministry of Justice predicted that the budget for the legal aid bill would be cut by £350 million. It promised that there would be innovative ways in which advice and legal services would be offered, allowing costs to be cut while still maintaining access to justice.
There was, however, little of substance. Instead, LASPO swept away 60 years of the development of legal aid, taking almost all private family law and most of social welfare law out of scope, introducing onerous restrictions on eligibility, and turning on its head the principle of a right to advice and representation. Now, matters would be eligible for legal aid only if expressly allowed by the schedule to the Act.
Later, criminal legal aid got the LASPO treatment. It did not feature in any detail in the original Bill, but subsequent secondary legislation introduced cuts of a similar scale for crime, opening up the prospect of advice deserts and, as we have already touched on, miscarriages of justice, where defendants do not meet eligibility criteria but cannot afford representation.
On the narrow point of advice deserts, does my hon. Friend agree that some London boroughs are appreciative of the Bar’s pro bono unit and the free representation it offers, and indeed, in my borough’s case, of the St James’s Church Legal Advice Centre in Muswell Hill, where the excellent Peter Thompson, who is not 21 anymore but still gives legal free aid, works? However, access to justice is a genuine issue in other parts of the country, where retired solicitors are simply unable to provide that kind of support.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. First, however good pro bono services are, they cannot replace legal aid and it would be wrong to say that they could. Secondly, I will give an example of a letter I received in preparation for this debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas)—who is in attendance and is himself a distinguished solicitor—may want to comment on. It says that in north Wales only two firms are contracted to do mental health work, in an area with eight hospitals with mental health services, and only one firm is doing community care—that is, social and health care law. That situation is far from untypical.
I think the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) has prompted an intervention.
I am grateful for the prompt from my hon. Friend; I was being a little cautious, compared with my colleagues. The dearth of advice in Wrexham, which is the largest town in north Wales, has a real impact. Even worse, until my last-minute intervention the Conservative-Independent coalition that runs the council was going to close our local citizens advice bureau. There is virtually no advice available. My constituency office has had to take on an extra caseworker to provide advice in the biggest town in north Wales.
My hon. Friend reminds me to touch on the effect on Members of Parliament, which I am sure we are all interested in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Most advice centres are experiencing staff reductions and are underfunded. That much is clear with regard to issues such as housing and immigration. Does he agree that that is a disgrace, to say the least?
I absolutely agree. Pre-LASPO, my own law centre employed eight solicitors across a range of, mainly, social welfare law, but now it can afford to employ only two solicitors. It is only through the generosity of the local Labour council—against the backdrop of its own budget cuts—and that of charitable trusts that it is able to top up that number with further practitioners. Even the previous position, however, was insufficient for the need, as I well know, and the current position is almost unsustainable.
Mencap mentions very specifically in its briefing the distress faced by people with disabilities who cannot get the support they need, and who drop out of the social security and care system because there is no one to speak for them. Even if they qualify for assistance, they cannot find the specialist lawyers they need. Mencap says that that is happening across the country. Does he agree that the Minister needs to look at increasing provision, and also needs to assess whether the necessary specialist lawyers are available in the system to help people?
That is particularly important to my hon. Friend and he makes a very good point. We have been briefed by both Mencap and Mind on today’s debate. It will not surprise anyone that Mind said that people with mental health problems are twice as likely as members of the general population to experience legal problems and four times as likely to experience complex legal problems—in other words, problems that extend across a number of different disciplines. As was predicted, those are the people who are worst affected.
Even as the Bill was being published, alarm bells were being rung, and not only by Opposition Members. I had the pleasure of leading for the Opposition in Committee on LASPO. We heard not only from experts and users of the system but from the Government officials. The impact assessments that accompanied the Bill predicted that people with protected characteristics would be disproportionately affected by the cuts.
The official MOJ line was:
“The wide-ranging availability of legal aid can lead people to assume legal action is their only option, even where early practical advice could be of more help to them and avoid them needing a lawyer at all.”
Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the money available was not enough and that we were losing precisely the swift and practical advice offered by CABs and advice and law centres. She added that Citizens Advice research suggested that every £1 spent on early advice saved around £9 later, partly by avoiding unnecessary and expensive tribunal hearings.
Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of Scope, said:
“To cut legal aid at a time of unprecedented changes to welfare support would mean disabled people who fall foul of poor decision-making, red tape or administrative error being pushed even further into poverty as they struggle to manoeuvre the complicated legal system without the expert support they need…This could result in a ticking timebomb of poorly prepared and lengthy tribunals and appeals, choking the courts and not saving money, but actually costing the government far more in the long term.”
The Government were warned. Did the predictions of doom come to pass? We know that they did. In fact, LASPO has cut far more deeply than had been billed. The stated aim was to reduce the legal aid budget by £350 million, but last year spending was £950 million less than in 2010, at £1.6 billion, as against £2.55 billion in 2010-11, with similar percentage falls in both civil and criminal legal aid.
While waiting for the Government review of LASPO—it was promised for between three and five years post-enactment, but we are now nearer six years post-enactment—we have not been short of expert opinion on its effects. Reports by the Justice Committee, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Bach Commission and the Low Commission have been consistent in highlighting the serious failings of LASPO. In 2017, the Bach Commission found that
“the justice system is in crisis. Most immediately, people are being denied access to justice because the scope of legal aid has been dramatically reduced and eligibility requirements made excessively stringent. But problems extend very widely through the justice system, from insufficient public legal education and a shrinking information and advice sector to unwieldy and creaking bureaucratic systems and uncertainty about the future viability of the practice of legal aid practitioners.”
In 2015, the Justice Committee published its verdict:
“Our overall conclusion was that, while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms. Since the reforms came into effect there has been an underspend in the civil legal aid budget because the Ministry has not ensured that many people who are eligible for legal aid are able to access it. A lack of public information about the extent and availability of legal aid post-reforms, including about the Civil Legal Advice telephone gateway for debt advice, contributed to this and we recommend the Ministry take prompt steps to redress this.”
Advice officers around the UK began looking for alternative sources of funding so that they could continue working with clients who would soon find themselves ineligible for legal aid. However, with local authority budgets cut, few sources of funding were available. Many agencies closed and private firms found that it was no longer economic to undertake legal aid work. As we have heard, whole areas of help have been removed from scope, leaving millions unable to get advice or representation. There has been an almost complete collapse in early legal advice. That means that cases now escalate and are resolved only after becoming much more complex, traumatic and expensive, if they are resolved at all.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) said, the Government argued that removing legal aid for most private family law matters would increase the uptake of mediation so families could resolve their problems outside court. They predicted an increase of 9,000 mediation assessments and 10,000 mediation cases for the year 2013-14. Instead, there was a decrease of 17,246 mediation assessments in the year after the reforms, and the number of mediation cases fell by 5,177 in the same period. One reason for that was the withdrawal of firms from those areas of law, leaving no one to signpost litigants to mediation.
The removal of legal aid from most areas of family law has had a disproportionate effect on women. In a survey carried out by Rights of Women and Women’s Aid, 53% of respondents took no action in relation to their case because they could not apply for legal aid. It is becoming so difficult for victims of domestic violence to obtain legal aid that last year, the Government were forced urgently to review the criteria for legal aid in such cases. Time limits preventing victims of domestic violence from obtaining legal aid for court hearings were scrapped and rules were relaxed to accept evidence from victim support organisations. Despite that, there are still concerns that too many women are falling through the cracks and not getting the help they need.
A dramatic increase of litigants in person following LASPO has created a severe strain on the court system which, to quote the retiring Director of Public Prosecutions this week, is already “creaking” under the effects of significant cuts and court closures.
My hon. Friend touches on an important and under-appreciated point. The court system is struggling to cope with litigants in person and the judiciary, whose role it is to judge cases, is having to take on the advice aspect of the justice system. It is difficult to combine that advisory role with providing impartial judicial functions.
My hon. Friend knows his business well. That is self-evidently true, and the judiciary is responding magnificently, but we are asking those people, whether in tribunals, magistrates courts, or the higher courts, effectively to do two jobs. They are asked both to be inquisitors and to represent parties—sometimes one party and sometimes both—as well as perform their ordinary functions. That is simply unsustainable in the long term.
Litigants in person can struggle to understand court procedures and their legal entitlements, and cases involving them take longer to resolve. The Personal Support Unit reports that, in 2010-11, its staff and volunteers helped people without access to a lawyer on about 7,000 occasions. By 2017-18, that number had rocketed to more than 65,000. The removal of most welfare benefits law from the scope of legal aid—which, again, we have touched on—has disproportionately affected disabled people. The number of benefits disputes cases with legal aid has fallen by 99% compared with pre-LASPO levels, from 29,801 cases in 2011-12 to 308 in 2016-17. When individuals are able to challenge benefits decisions, the majority of those decisions are overturned. Since 2013, 63% of appeals against personal independence payment decisions and 60% of appeals against employment and support allowance decisions were decided in the claimant’s favour.
My hon. Friend is something of a historian in legal matters. Who was it—it may have been H.R. Greaves in his first lecture at the London School of Economics—who said:
“In England, justice is open to all—like the Ritz Hotel”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I think he means that I have been around for too long.
Many Members will have seen the results of LASPO in their surgeries and I am grateful to colleagues for raising this point. Half of the MPs who responded to a survey carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid said that the volume of constituency casework had increased over the past year. More than half said they had seen a notable increase in the complexity of that work. Many MPs reported that advice agencies in their constituencies had closed, meaning that those MPs were no longer able to refer constituents onwards to get the help they needed. Some MPs even said that citizens advice bureaux were referring constituents to them because the bureaux were unable to cope with the number of people seeking help.
Fearful of falling foul of human rights law, LASPO introduced exceptional case funding. The Government projected that 5,000 to 7,000 such exceptional cases would be funded per year, but only 954 people benefited from that scheme in 2017. In almost every aspect, the consequences of LASPO have been as bad as predicted or worse, and the mitigating measures have not worked.
Unlike my constituents, the Government are not short of advice on what to do. In particular, I commend the 25 recommendations in the Bach Commission report. Those include changes to scope and eligibility; a simplification of the current rules, including for criminal matters; reform of exceptional funding; and better access to existing services, including more face-to-face advice. That report also suggests solutions to other issues of concern. The restrictions on legal aid for judicial review, the lack of representation at inquests for the deceased’s family, and the complicity of the Legal Aid Agency in refusing legal aid in cases that are embarrassing to Government, such as the prisoner book ban, are all subject to recommendations in that report. Those are serious issues, not just of inequality of arms, but of manipulation of resources by Government to avoid proper scrutiny of their actions. I hope the Minister has time to respond on those issues. If not, I suspect we will be debating them again before too long.
Many Members wish to speak, so I will conclude by reiterating our main asks for today. The first is to restore access to early advice. Lack of early advice means that simple problems are left to escalate. Larger problems cost more money to fix. Lack of early housing law advice on disrepair issues can lead to health, social and financial problems, the tab for which will ultimately be picked up by the NHS and local authorities. Prevention is better than cure. A recent report commissioned for the Law Society found that restoring early legal help would save the taxpayer money.
Secondly, we ask that the Government restore access to welfare advice. Welfare benefits law is labyrinthine, and that system is particularly difficult to navigate for people who are disabled. Recent social security reforms have led to a steep rise in inaccurate decisions and benefit sanctions. Thousands of disabled people have been left to challenge unlawful decisions without legal assistance. How many more unfair decisions would be overturned if people who had been treated unlawfully by the Department for Work and Pensions could access welfare advice?
Thirdly, we ask that the Government simplify the criteria for those who need legal aid. The Government should consider a significantly simpler and more generous scheme. The means test should be based on a simple assessment of gross household income following an adjustment for family size. In 1980, civil legal aid was available to 80% of the country. Today, that figure is thought to be under 20%. Ordinary working people who are just about managing are now considered too rich to be eligible for legal aid. Pensioners are among those worst affected by the outdated means test—even modest savings disqualify them from legal aid. The effect is that a vulnerable pensioner unlawfully denied basic care may well have to pay for a lawyer out of their own pocket. Legal aid does not only fund a lawyer, but provides protection from paying the other side’s costs.
I have been sent a huge number of individual case studies. For reasons of time, I am not going to be able to go through all of them—I would be happy to supply them to the Minister, but I am sure she is aware of the problems that arise. I have seen some heartbreaking cases involving mental capacity. Often, elderly people are removed from their own homes, sometimes forcibly, and are unlawfully detained by local authorities. They wish to go back to their homes and to criticise the conditions in which they are being kept, but because they have equity in their property which, frankly, they have no chance of raising money on, they are unable to challenge the decision. That is a fundamental breach of people’s human rights.
Cases such as those should make the Minister think again. I therefore ask her to put her well-thumbed, prepared text aside, because it does not—I know, having heard it earlier this week—address the specific point that I and others highlight in this debate. As a distinguished lawyer, I know she wants to ensure access to justice for all. She knows that even the best justice system is worth having only if it is open to anyone to use it. The requests I have made would go some way to restoring that access. I hope we get a positive response today and when the review reports next month.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I start by referring to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing this debate on a very important topic.
I make no bones about approaching this debate with a rather personal stake. Before I came to this place, the whole of my working life had been as a barrister practising in the criminal courts, almost invariably publicly funded by legal aid to defend or by the Crown Prosecution Service or the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute. I hope I can recognise that this is not merely an academic matter. These things affect the lives of every one of our constituents and every Member of this House, regardless of party. I hope I will be able to approach the debate in that spirit.
It is a long history that we have to review. LASPO is just one step in the changes to legal aid that we have seen over the years. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to the famous quote by Mr Justice Mathew, later Lord Justice Mathew. At the turn of the 20th century, he said that the courts of England are open to all like the Ritz hotel. I am sure the hon. Gentleman was not actually there at the time—I was not either—but it has become a stock phrase. The point, however, is that Mr Justice Mathew was being ironic; for those who did not have means, there was precious little access to the courts of England at that time.
After that period, we developed a system of legal aid over a number of years. I accept that I was to some degree a beneficiary of that system, but the system was necessary to ensure that justice was done. Thereafter, it may be argued—I think it was part of the rationale behind LASPO—that in some areas, the system did not work as efficiently as it might. I can think of rolled-up conspiracy trials that went on for about six months, where two barristers for each defendant would ask about one question a week. Frankly, that was not an expenditure that could be justified, and it was not targeting things in the right way.
The problem is that successive Governments seeking to reform—it is worth remembering that changes to legal aid did not begin with LASPO or the coalition Government; they were set in train initially, in some measure, during the Blair and Brown Governments—have run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In cutting down on some instances of needless expenditure that went beyond what was necessary to ensure justice, there is always a risk that the pendulum will go too far the other way. Having looked at the matter and tried as a lawyer to look at the evidence, I am sorry to say that I am driven to the conclusion that that is what has happened here.
The good news is that there is an opportunity to review things. It is a shame that it has taken so long, but we would all say, “Better late than never.” I know that the Minister is absolutely committed to ensuring proper, good-quality access for all who genuinely need it. I know her personal commitment to the Bar, the rule of law and our legal system and her personal experience of it, so I know she will approach this matter in the open-minded way she did when she was in practice herself. I urge her to look at the evidence. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, the evidence is pretty compelling that changes are needed. I do not expect her to say what those changes are going to be today, but I hope she will take away the message that the evidence does not purely come from pressure groups of self-interested lawyers. Nothing could be further from the case.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does he agree that our international reputation is at stake? The legal sector is one of the most important in our economy. If we want to continue to be a country that has a global reputation, generating revenues for our economy in respect of international law, we need to ensure that we hold up equality of access to justice for all as a touchstone of our liberty.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He speaks with great experience from his time in practice in serious criminal matters and from his work on the Justice Committee, to which I pay warm tribute. We cannot disaggregate the justice system. As part of our post-Brexit strategy and our “Britain is GREAT” campaign, the Minister’s Department is rightly proclaiming the value of our legal system and legal services, which is real and profound. Their integrity depends on the whole system being properly resourced and funded. It is no good simply to say that we have the best means of commercial dispute resolution and arbitration in the world. It is not enough to say we have probably the best system of civil justice across the piece in the world. It is equally important that we can say the same about our criminal justice system, our family law system and our tribunals system. They are increasingly relevant and important to the whole system.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and an excellent point. May I add that we need to have a local justice system that works right across the country? Towns and rural areas also need access to justice for people in those areas. One of the real problems with the Government’s running of the justice system more broadly is that local justice has been profoundly undermined by lack of provision and court closures.
With his experience, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point. The Justice Committee has looked at a number of those areas over the past two or three years or so, and we have looked at aspects of access to justice in all its forms. It is partly about legal aid, but there are other matters, too. I will concentrate on legal aid because that is the subject of the debate, but his point about other matters is entirely fairly and well made.
There is a clear case that in attempting to right what was perhaps extravagance in some limited areas, we may have inadvertently done injustice to potential claimants. We need to put that right. The first area that I would suggest to the Minister is important is funding advice, as has already been observed. The legal aid change was predicated—I was there at the time, as was the hon. Member for Hammersmith, and I was prepared to take this on face value—on the idea that it would be a good thing to move away from the comparatively adversarial approach to family cases to mediation and something much more collaborative. That has to be the right thing. The Minister’s Department is recognising that in another sense with the sensible proposals to reform the divorce laws to move away from a confrontational approach. The irony is that so far as legal advice and representation are concerned, those good intentions have not been followed through.
As has rightly been observed, early access to legal advice and a solicitor would point people in the direction of mediation. We can invest significant money in having much more public education so that people can assist themselves, but it may be just as cost-effective—I suspect it would be more cost-effective—to restore some measure of early advice in those family cases. Any good solicitor worth their salt will rightly advise their clients to adopt that course of mediation if it fits the circumstances of the case. Restoring the position there would be a sensible investment to save.
Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes the best advice that a lawyer can give at an early stage is, “For goodness’ sake, don’t litigate”? If that good advice is given at an early stage, we can have a reasonable expectation that the courts will be properly allocated to deal with those disputes that they should be dealing with.
Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. What he says applies not only to family work, but to any form of civil litigation and, in truth, to criminal work, too. When I defended people, I regarded it as my first and principal duty to give them an honest assessment of their prospects of successfully defending a charge.
The hon. Gentleman and I both serve on the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. I do not think that people are saying that the situation is due to malign intent. Many of the things that we are talking about today are unintended consequences. Certainly, it was not intended that there should be miscarriages of justice, or that people should be unable to get any professional help at all. The Ministry of Justice is tiny in the scheme of things, but its resources have been savagely cut.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I agree that there was nothing malign in the intent. The changes were made at a time when the coalition Government were under considerable financial pressure because of the situation that we inherited. I have much sympathy with that, but to adopt the phrase of John Maynard Keynes, “When the facts change I change my opinion—what do you do, sir?” The Government need to do that too, because the evidence has been built up, and it is powerful.
For a number of reasons, it was thought necessary to introduce the LASPO reforms at some speed. They were probably not fully worked through, there was no chance to do sufficient impact assessments, and they were not tested. Again, it was not for a malign reason. At the time, there was a compelling budget imperative to get on with it, but it created unintended consequences. As the Prime Minister has observed, we are getting to a stage where, thanks to the Government’s good economic stewardship, we might be able to loosen the purse strings a little in some areas. That gives us the chance to adopt that Keynesian approach and adjust our conclusions to the fresh evidence that has come before us.
Early advice is essential. We have talked about family work and its importance in the criminal system. Any lawyer will advise his client, if the evidence against him or her is overwhelming, of the advantageous discount in sentence for an early plea. Proper advice by specialist lawyers saves time and money, and saves witnesses in criminal cases from the trauma of having to go to court. We should not forget that either, as it is an important part of the system.
Early advice is also important in cases of housing and debt, and related matters. People have come to my surgery, in a comparatively prosperous part of suburban London, having been in effect served with an eviction notice because they did not understand the court papers. Bailiffs were literally coming to the door. We cannot expect people who often have multiple problems in their lives necessarily to be able to resolve such things on their own.
We can certainly make the civil justice system easier to navigate. The reforms to an online court, for example, and better means of entering pleadings and dealing with smaller-sized claims are all perfectly worthy and worth while. However, ultimately, even if a computer can process the pleadings efficiently and effectively, it cannot advise someone on whether there is merit in their claim, whether they have a defence to an action brought against them or how they might best compromise the matter so that they do not, for example, end up on the street or saddled with significant debt. All those things require the legal element, and I suggest that there would be a saving in reinstating some funding there.
I keep in touch with many friends and colleagues at the Bar who now sit on the bench. I sometimes reflect that my career took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. The truth is that anyone in the judiciary—whether from the High Court or, perhaps even more significantly, down to circuit judges and district judges, who shoulder the vast volume of the work, as well as magistrates—will say that the amount of time that is now taken up by litigants in person is placing a serious burden on the system. I go to my local county court and talk to the district judges and the county court judge. Exactly the same thing can be seen at the magistrates court, and I have no doubt that it is replicated across the country.
It is generally thought that a litigant in person will take about three times as long to deal with a case than lawyers would, if they were involved. The upshot is that we are saving cost at one end of the system but piling it on in another part. The net benefit to the public purse is nil—perhaps even negative.
My hon. Friend has been so generous. Does he agree that one of the pillars of our world-renowned legal system is the integrity, skill and impartiality of our judges? It is no secret that they feel quite put upon at the moment, not least on pensions and other matters. Their time is being taken up with extremely complex issues where it is harder for them to achieve justice. Does he not agree that we should take that extremely seriously, so that we continue to have a pipeline of the brightest and the best?
That is right. We could probably have a debate on judicial recruitment and retention.
Put in for it.
Perhaps we should, and perhaps I will encourage my hon. Friend to join me in doing so.
Litigants in person are a real pressure on the totality of the court system, because if courts are being clogged up by cases that are being slowly presented—where the judge has to hold the litigant by the hand to take them through steadily and ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice—that uses up the time of the court building and the court ushers. It puts pressure upon listing, and means delays in other cases coming on. There are more likely to be adjournments because people will not have prepared the bundles properly or got their evidence together. That is all wasted cost in the system, which some early investment would save.
Those are key areas where more could be done. We perhaps need to look, too, at some areas in relation to tribunals—an increasingly important area of jurisdiction. Not all tribunal cases, of course, need legal representation, but they increasingly deal with more complex matters and more complex areas of law and of fact where it makes sense, for exactly the same reasons, to have proper legal advice.
Joining those thoughts together, I commend to the House the Justice Committee’s reports on access to justice, and on courts and tribunal fees. Although fees are separate from the legal aid regime, the unintended consequence of some of those changes was remarkably similar in making access to justice for deserving—that is the key bit—claimants more difficult. Finally, we recently wrote a report on criminal legal aid. I will end on that—it may be the subject on which I have spent most of my life.
We cannot have a situation where it is extremely difficult to get high-quality young lawyers to go into criminal work. The integrity of our system, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) referred, is seen most visibly in the way in which we deal with criminal cases. If the state, no doubt for good reasons, thinks it necessary to bring charges against an individual to be tested in our courts, it is only right and proper that that individual, having had the resource and power of the state brought against them, has as a matter of equality of arms and basic fairness the ability to defend themselves. To do that properly, they must be able to access lawyers who are as good, as well trained, and as competent as those who prosecute.
To do that, we have to be prepared to remunerate people. We cannot have a situation where criminal barristers are worse off, as they are under some aspects of the advocates’ graduated fee scheme at the moment, if they take on a complex and demanding case—for example, a multi-handed rape—as opposed to a single-handed offence of the same kind, because the extra work is simply not reflected in the fee. Those are precisely the cases— I did many of them myself—where experienced and sensitive advocates on both sides are critical. We are in danger of damaging the supply chain, as far as that is concerned.
It also cannot be right that the system does not remunerate defence lawyers for looking at the unused material in cases. Some of the main cases where miscarriages of justice have occurred, as you will know, Sir Henry, from your experience in these matters, are where there has been a failure in disclosure. Usually it is, as is often the case here, a result of unintended error. Although I have come across one or two cases where I could not say that that was the case, things genuinely go wrong, and it must be possible, in terms of the fairness of a trial, for the defence lawyers to be able to look through the unused disclosed material to ensure that there is nothing that might be exculpatory to their client.
That is only right and proper, and prosecutions have collapsed in high-profile cases because that was not properly done. People have been saved by the integrity of members of the independent Bar, on both sides, who took the opportunity, even though they were not going to be paid for the hours, to go through the unused material and highlight matters that meant that the prosecution could not safely proceed. It seems only right and just that the solicitors and barristers who were on legal aid on those matters should be paid for doing that, because we want to ensure that it is done properly. Let us face it: as those cases highlighted, the sooner it is done the fewer wasted hearings and adjournments, which have bedevilled some of those high-profile cases, there will be. It is not only the right thing but the common-sense thing to do.
We also need to recognise that early advice from solicitors at the police station is critical in criminal cases. Striking evidence was given to the Justice Committee inquiry that the average age of a police station duty solicitor is 47. Young people are not coming into the role because it is simply not remunerated well enough.
That all leads me to the conclusion that Lord Kerr got it right in his Supreme Court judgment on the Unison case. His view, to which I am driven by the evidence, was that regrettably, however good the intentions, the current arrangements under LASPO have adopted too transactional an approach to justice. He said that litigation is not merely a private transaction between parties; it also involves a greater public good. In that case, which was about employment tribunals, it involved the exposure of bad working practices and improvements that might stem from it, but the principle applies to any type of litigation. There is a public good in access to the courts that goes beyond the right—itself important—of the parties themselves to have access to justice. It is a bigger thing—a point that takes us back to our commitment to the rule of law, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham referred to.
I therefore urge a Keynesian approach on the Minister. Keynes was not always wrong, and he was certainly right about this. If we believe in following the evidence, as we all do in any legal process, and if the evidence indicates that things have gone too far the other way and we have the chance to change them, there is no shame in admitting that. It would be honest politics, good government and entirely consistent with the spirit that the Minister and her ministerial colleagues seek to bring to our approach. Where we can put things right, it is better to accept the position, act on the evidence and ensure that we have a better basis for legal funding and access to justice.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, particularly given your personal interest in and commitment to this field of policy. It is also a great pleasure to follow two superb speeches that set out the broad range of topics that we need to cover. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing the debate and on his opening speech. I strongly commend the speech of the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill); I do not think I disagreed with a word of it.
The excellent briefings that we received in advance of the debate from a wide range of organisations come on top of a wealth of analysis that has already contributed to the debate, not only from the Justice Committee but from my own Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which produced a report including an analysis of many of the post-LASPO failings. The case has already been made, as we have heard today, but I wish to make a few remarks to convey not just an analytical concern for the post-LASPO world, but the real anxiety, passion and anger that so many people feel about the environment in which we find ourselves.
Yesterday morning, we marked Justice Week with a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. We were very pleased that the Minister came to speak to us and that the meeting was very well attended, including by the Bar Council, the Law Society, parliamentarians, a great many people from the not-for-profit sector, and solicitors. We heard a compelling case for the central role of legal aid and for ensuring access to justice. We heard the message that the Government need to hear thunder reverberating, because every single prediction made before the passage of LASPO has come to pass. We heard that the situation has declined to the point that the criminal Bar has thought it necessary to take strike action and the Law Society is taking legal action against the Government. It is unprecedented in modern times for those organisations to feel compelled to take such strong action, but they want the Government to hear exactly what is going on.
Sadly, in Justice Week, we also learned in the Budget that the Ministry of Justice, which with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has already taken the largest cuts of any Department, is to be subject to yet another cut. It is an unprotected Department, and we now know that its budget will be cut from £6.3 billion to £6 billion. We are making the case for legal aid in a context in which justice funding is falling still further.
As we have heard, legal aid is in competition with many other areas of justice that are also under intolerable pressure. Almost every hon. Member in this Chamber has been present at debates that conveyed our anxiety about other creaking, breaking parts of the criminal justice system, so it is understandable that we are extremely concerned to ensure that the case for legal aid is not made at the expense of the prison service or the other parts of the justice system that are also under absolutely intolerable strain. In truth, the thunder is reverberating; it is just that the Government have not been listening.
I will not repeat in great detail the case that has been made so widely in this House and through the many forms of evidence submitted to the LASPO review about the consequences of areas of service falling out of scope and of the tightening of eligibility. The impact on providers has in turn had an impact on people—often the most vulnerable people—who need to be effectively represented.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s argument, and I am glad that she referred to Justice Week. Does she agree that it might be worth while for every Member of this House to watch the Bar Council’s video about justice cuts, in which several providers, as well as hon. Members, talk about the impact on the individual cases they deal with?
Absolutely. I would love every Member of this House to watch that video and to be made aware of the case being made.
We know what is happening to legal aid providers. Law centres lost 60% of their income from legal aid post LASPO, and in the immediate aftermath we lost eleven law centres. I pay tribute to my own centre, Paddington law centre, which provides such an essential service. I also commend North Kensington law centre—this country’s first law centre, which I used to represent but is now just outside my constituency—for doing such extraordinary work in the aftermath of Grenfell.
Law centres are indispensable; they are an integral part of effective community life. The Chair of the Justice Committee was absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that justice is not a private transaction. These services—particularly law centres, but not only them—are part of a healthy community and a strong civic life. The consequences of undermining them go far beyond the individuals concerned.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a lesson for us in this place, too? There is no point in our standing up, making speeches, passing legislation and pontificating grandly if the laws that we give effect to are ultimately not capable of being enforced. Is that not a crucial point?
That is absolutely right. I will come on to a variant of that theme—the extent to which the law is having to bear the burden of bad laws and bad implementation of policy. We are seeing even more of that now than we were before.
In addition to the impact on law centres, we have also seen a fall in the number of providers across the piece, including a 60% fall in not-for-profit providers. I am sure that the Government did not want not-for-profits, with all their ability to lever in additional support from outside legal aid, to be a form of service that was reduced, yet absolutely inevitably and as was predicted, the not-for-profit sector has seen some of the deepest cuts.
As we heard, there has been a calamitous fall across the piece in new acts of assistance, with legal help matter starts down from 573,000 in 2012 to 140,000 in 2017, so we know that people who would previously have got legal assistance and representation are now not doing so. We have heard also about the kinds of areas of service where that has had an impact. What we have not heard yet is that this is happening in a context in which the demand and need for that kind of representation and advocacy is growing.
In terms of welfare, that is an absolute explicit consequence of the welfare reform legislation, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the changes to disability benefits, which have seen so many people losing their benefits. They have been making appeals against that, and winning those appeals in unprecedented numbers—at a level that clearly demonstrates the total inadequacy of the way in which disability policy has been drawn up—but those appeals are only being won where people have representation and advocacy. There is a difference in the success rate for people who are appealing against loss of benefits where they are represented and where they are not. It is deeply worrying that people with identical conditions and identical sets of circumstances may or may not be successful in maintaining or restoring their disability benefits depending on whether they live in an area where they are able to access advice and representation.
As people will not be surprised to know, another issue that is close to my heart, homelessness, is another factor. After many years in which homelessness fell, there has been a doubling of rough sleeping and a 50% increase in the number of families going into the homelessness system. Although that remains within scope, with the loss of providers and the pressure on the system, the demand for assistance is rising but the ability to provide is not.
Speakers this afternoon have talked about different groups of people who have fed evidence in to the debate. I am particularly grateful to Youth Access for its briefing. It wanted to draw attention to the predicament of young people, who experience many of the difficulties with the welfare system and housing on the same level as others, but who are particularly unlikely to be able to access help. Youth Access states that 84% of young people are left unaided in their search for legal representation. That too will have worsened post-LASPO.
It is unfashionable in this House to champion the cause of the lawyers who provide these services. We often hear about fat cat lawyers, or see the media representation of the tiny number of lawyers who have made a considerable amount of money through the legal aid system. The truth is that legal aid lawyers are in very challenging financial circumstances. They have not had a pay rise for a very long time. Unless we are able to retain them and attract a new generation of lawyers into legal aid, the service available in some parts of the country will decline further. I saw another example today of areas of the country where nobody is bidding or competing for legal aid contracts in housing law, because they are simply not able to make money out of them.
In the debate in my name on the LASPO review a few weeks ago, I set out a more detailed critique of what has gone wrong since 2012, so I will not cover any more of those points now. The Minister was very courteous in her response and subsequently replied to some of the questions; she also attended a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group. I understand that she is not able to pre-empt the conclusions of the LASPO review today, but in that debate at the beginning of September I listened in vain for a sense of a real commitment to understanding the scale of the challenge that we face. I hope that today she will be able not just to tell us what money is going into the legal aid system—I think we already know that—but to convey a sense of her passion for wanting to address and redress the problems that so many people across the board are now telling her about.
What we are looking for, and what we hope we hear a commitment to today with the detail spelled out when we get the LASPO review, is a restoration of money for early help. Everybody understands the importance of early intervention and preventive services, so we want to get a commitment to putting money back into early help. We have specific and detailed proposals for improving eligibility, for simplifying and clarifying the rules on eligibility and for bringing certain areas back into scope. Family law is a particular area that we want to see restored, as well as criminal legal aid, which should include a proper recognition of the need to tackle the under-remuneration of criminal legal aid lawyers.
Access to justice is as fundamental to the functioning of a good society as services such as health and education, which we more often invoke when we talk about public services. Access to justice is now being deeply and dangerously undermined. We need not just warm words, but urgent and immediate action from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing what has been an excellent debate.
I start by picking up on a couple of comments from the contributions so far, not least on the matter of self-representation and the fact that it leads to an increased potential for miscarriages of justice. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who has just left his place, mentioned the importance of the rule of law. Over the last couple of years, there has been an increasing reference to the rule of law in this country, as part of the debate on restoring our sovereignty; it is becoming much more important to people and is much higher up the agenda. It must be reflected in a strong and impactful justice system. Without it, we cannot continue to consider ourselves a bastion of extraordinary strength in our legal framework.
More and more in my constituency surgeries, I receive queries on matters such as immigration, although housing, welfare and family matters are also prevalent. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about the advice that is being given to people in quite complex circumstances. Very often, people arrive at my door having been given advice on Home Office procedure or relevant sections of Home Office codes and regulations by paralegals or so-called legal advisers, who are not solicitors. They have paid thousands for this erroneous advice. Those in my office, who are also not legally qualified, have to untangle the mess. Thanks to the expertise of our own Library and the resources that we have access to, we are able to point them in the right direction and give the right kind of support that they need.
There is much in this debate that I am sure the Minister is listening to very carefully. As has been mentioned, a number of advice briefings have been circulated ahead of this debate. I read the Mencap briefing, which really resonated, especially in terms of the reference that it made to low levels of legal literacy among the general population, and to the fact that there is very limited access even to basic advice, with people increasingly becoming more reliant on organisations that are unable to take on legal cases. They might be able to advise up to a certain point, but they are unable to take the matter forward and provide representation, with the result that people, without that background of knowledge and perhaps without the skills to take their case forward fully are left without a full level of support in their case.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
The Mencap briefing refers to the suggestion that the Government should address the problems with the supply of specialist solicitors. That is the reason why I wanted to participate in this debate and the reason for my concerns about the lack of availability of solicitors, particularly in areas like Grimsby, and around responsive criminal matters. The Library debate pack reminds us that, as we have heard already, there have been
“significant changes to criminal legal aid, particularly in relation to means testing of applicants and to rates of pay for solicitors and barristers undertaking criminal work.”
It notes that most of that has come through secondary legislation. That has made it even harder for solicitors to continue to run their practices.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) highlighted the issue of access to justice in towns, but in towns such as Grimsby, lots of solicitors have closed down their practices and moved to nearby cities, where they are more assured of getting additional work, or they have completely changed their area of speciality. The awful thing is that that fact, which I believe has come about because of the limitations around legal aid, is now being used as part of the evidential base in consultations on future local court viability.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point about the impact on firms of solicitors. I wonder whether she might be interested to know that evidence given to the Justice Committee suggested that when the Solicitors Regulation Authority took data from some 2,000 firms, 5% were at high risk of financial difficulty and 45% were at medium risk—so half were running some risk of financial difficulty. The prime mover in that was exposure to having more than half their fee income from criminal or family legal aid. It is forcing firms out of business.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, which surely must go towards the consideration of what kind of legal advice will be available around the country in the future if firms are at risk of closure because they cannot secure their anticipated income. It certainly cannot be much of a draw for those who are thinking about entering the legal profession and perhaps joining a local firm.
On Monday, a consultation was launched on listing arrangements in magistrates courts across the Humber and South Yorkshire. One issue that is highlighted in the consultation document is the changes that are coming about due to the low number of legal advisers available to cover the courts at the Grimsby site. I cannot help but think that the reason why so few legal advisers are available to cover that site is that we have seen so much closure as a result of limitations to legal aid. It almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy—that a decision has been made that impacts this, and is now driving yet another consultation on justice. It will have yet another impact on people’s overall access to justice, albeit in a slightly different area from the main subject of this debate.
To support that line of argument, the consultation includes a number of annexes and has various statistics to prove the necessity of the structural reform. The dates provided for these statistics run from 2017 to 2018 or from the beginning of January until the end of August 2018, none of which takes into account the number of cases and the support that was available before legal aid cuts had such an impact, reducing the number of solicitors available locally. I cannot help but think that there is an in-built bias in the consultation document, which already leads us down the route to saying that there is no requirement for the court system as it exists in that area.
The consultation document lists eight benefits while providing just two identifiable drawbacks:
“Defendants in custody who would otherwise have appeared at Barnsley, Doncaster, Beverley and Grimsby, may now need to be transported a greater distance to appear in court. This may also apply to their representatives, and others wishing to support those defendants. Producing defendants in custody at fewer sites will increase the pressure on custody facilities at those sites.”
The document fails to recognise the issue of Grimsby’s local geography—of where we are in the country. It talks about our being 33 miles from Hull, but that must be as the crow flies because it is certainly not that distance on any form of public transport. In reality, it is at least an hour’s drive for people to access those custody suites, bearing in mind the traffic in Hull and Sheffield, which are the two nearest courts that it is being suggested we will be directed to. Two hours on a bus or train to access those provisions really is not accessibility at all for people. Even if people are to drive and there are to be police officers escorting people under arrest to those sites, that will take away significant resources from police, who we would otherwise expect to be on our streets.
I have been contacted to say that exactly the same process happened in Scunthorpe, which is a 40-minute drive from Grimsby. Twelve months ago, Scunthorpe had a fully operational magistrates court with custody facilities. Just 12 months after those custody facilities were lost, the magistrates court was entirely closed. Such a process is not something that people in my area would be best served by. There does not seem to be any consideration of the additional pressures of such closures on other areas and the custody facilities at nearby suites. I think that there will be a significant limitation, in terms of cost and ability, of people’s attendance at those sites. It is likely that we will see a greater level of non-attendance. If we think about justice in its fullest meaning, and about access and support around the whole justice system, I cannot see how those two fit together in any way.
The frequently asked questions in the consultation document talk about queries on subsequent trials and mention that trials will be held at whichever sites are
“most convenient for defendants, victims and witnesses.”
I know the shadow Minister has visited my constituency, so she will be aware how precarious the public transport system is; it is incredibly difficult to get to. The FAQs conclude that the difficulties are
“likely to be few within the overall circumstances.”
I find it surprising that that kind of expediency can be given, and that it can be considered acceptable for even one person not to receive the same kind of access to justice facilities.
I want to finish with an email that a local defence solicitor sent me to make me aware of these issues. He wrote:
“A local matter has arisen which may be of interest to you which will affect the whole community. A consultation (8 weeks) has been issued by HM Courts Service proposing that from April next year all Grimsby prisoners/people from Grimsby in custody go to Hull Magistrates Court to be dealt with and not Grimsby. Grimsby will no longer deal with custody cases. Local people from Grimsby will have their cases dealt with by Magistrates in Hull who have no connection to our area. This is exactly what happened in Scunthorpe a short time ago, their custody work was moved here to Grimsby and within 12 months the Court was closed altogether. All agencies in the local Criminal Justice believe the move is the first step to close Grimsby Magistrates Court and are opposed to the proposals. We are to fight against this but as with the fate of many Courts we fear we may be fighting a losing battle...Any support from you would be greatly appreciated...This”—
“will destroy local justice for local people.”
I hope the Minister will bear that in mind in her closing comments.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for applying for this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn).
Every single one of us here has similar concerns about the severity of the cuts. Today we have been highlighting the impact that the LASPO Act has had on our constituents and our communities over the past five years. I will speak specifically about Wales because of the particular issues there. They will of course be common to much that has already been raised, but it is important that particular needs are considered. Wales has experienced the largest decline in legal aid providers over the past five years—a decrease of 29%—and today I will talk about the impact on housing, criminal legal aid, and the experience of victims of crime, particularly in the family court.
Legal aid in the housing sector has been particularly hard hit owing to the rates set by the Government, which have left Wales with only one housing legal aid provider in half of the procurement areas and a host of problems. First, families on low incomes might not be able to travel to see the only provider in their area, which might be located many miles away from where they live, because of travel costs and the availability of public transport. That is particularly true in rural areas. The inability to seek essential legal advice can, in the most extreme cases, result in homelessness. Secondly, one firm in a large area might not have capacity to provide advice to those who need it. People requiring legal aid advice on housing issues often need advice urgently and cannot afford to go on a waiting list. Thirdly, conflicts of interest can arise because one law firm cannot represent both tenant and landlord, or represent a tenant if the landlord is engaged with the firm on another matter. We have a real concern about conflicts of interest.
I welcome the recent High Court ruling in favour of the Law Society, confirming that the UK Government’s latest cuts to the pay of criminal lawyers are unlawful. Criminal law duty solicitors, as we have heard, are already in high demand, and we have good grounds to believe that the situation will worsen if present trends continue. In Wales, where we have a specific need for people who can operate professionally through the medium of Welsh—a very real need in the county of Gwynedd and other communities in rural Wales—the shortage is even more exaggerated. In future, who will be able to provide that which we have a right to—justice in English and Welsh—if we do not have those people coming through?
The hon. Lady might like to know that the figures provided to the Justice Committee in relation to mid and west Wales suggest that 60% of criminal law duty solicitors were over the age of 50. That situation clearly is not sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman has just anticipated one of my next sentences. We have an ageing specialist profession, many of whom are able to operate through the medium of Welsh, and we are not seeing those skilled and important individuals coming through. Unless the Government reverse the cuts and provide an incentive for more people to train in criminal law, they will seriously threaten the right of individuals to access independent expert legal advice in either Welsh or English free of charge when detained by the police.
Finally, I want to explain how the cuts to legal aid are putting victims of domestic abuse, stalking and harassment in further danger and forcing them to come face to face with their abusers. Even if that was never the intention, that is the result. A survey of 122 victims of stalking and domestic abuse conducted by Plaid Cymru found that 55% of victims had court proceedings taken out against them by their abusers, despite restraining orders being in place, and two thirds of the victims then had to appear in court. Although it might be unintended, that snapshot is extremely revealing. Due to the cuts in legal aid, many abusers were not given free legal representation, so they represented themselves. It is distressing enough for a victim of abuse to have vexatious proceedings—they are too often vexatious—taken out against them and to have to appear in court, but a third of the victims had to go through the trauma of being personally cross-examined by the person who had been stalking and relentlessly harassing them, who had made their lives such a misery that they had had to take out a restraining order against them. Again, that might not have been the intention of the legislation, but that is the result. It is in no circumstances safe; nor is it a responsible or just way to treat victims.
The situation is the result of unyielding cuts to legal aid. I do not think that the UK Government anticipated that victims of abuse would bear the brunt of the cuts in such a way, but unfortunately that is the case. Many people predicted such results, and the evidence that has come to pass proves them correct. Again, I echo fellow Members here when such evidence is presented to us. I sincerely hope and I believe that the Minister feels strongly on this matter, too. We need to resolve this. We have the evidence and time has passed. We are seeing the evidence in our constituency meetings and hearing it from legal experts, of whom I am not one, but this issue cries out to be addressed.
The principle of equality before the law should be upheld. A valid justice system must enable everyone to access legal advice. It must not remain a privilege afforded only to the wealthy.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing this important debate today, particularly during Justice Week.
A recent survey commissioned by the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives showed that 78% of people agree that justice is as important as health or education, yet only 20% of the 2,000 respondents thought there was sufficient funding for those who need legal advice. Since the implementation of LASPO under the coalition Government, the reduction in legal aid has caused a crisis of access to justice. Our justice system is fast becoming a two-tier system where the dividing line is determined by who can, and more often cannot, afford legal advice. Access to justice and the rule of law, which underpin so many things within society, are slowly ebbing away for many across the country.
LASPO removed many areas of law from the remit of civil legal aid, including in the sphere of housing, welfare, debt, employment, immigration, family law and clinical negligence. The Bar Council was absolutely damning in its recent assessment of LASPO: in a survey of members, 91% of respondents reported that the number of individuals struggling to get access to legal advice and representation had increased or risen significantly; the same number of respondents also reported a significant increase in the number of litigants in person in family cases. Most worryingly, however, 25% of respondents had stopped doing civil legal aid work, and 48% of barristers surveyed did less legal aid work than before. We know about legal aid deserts popping up across the country. Almost one third of the legal aid areas in England and Wales have one local legal aid housing advice provider, or none. LASPO has shunned those who most need help.
The ideologically driven cuts to budgets have had a profound impact on legal aid, but analysis has shown that the cuts to early advice in particular, as well as being a sign of poor decision making, cost the state more. When there is early advice, problems are resolved much more quickly, with 25% of cases resolved within three to four months, compared with nine months when there is no early advice.
One area in which LASPO has perversely driven up costs is immigration. LASPO exempted certain immigration cases. Home Office error affects about 50,000 British-born children of parents who are legally in the UK and who have no recourse to public funds. A third are likely to have their decisions overturned. They are wholly reliant on council funding and children’s services. The cost vastly exceeds the cost of providing housing benefit or child benefit. It can take years to overturn decisions, as I have seen in my casework and surgeries.
My hon. Friend’s constituency is not a million miles from mine and I completely relate to the points he raised about the cases people bring to surgery. I have lost count of the number of food vouchers that I have given to families in exactly the situation he describes—trapped in the immigration system without being able to get access to any kind of legal aid to resolve their problems.
For many years before entering this place I was an employment rights lawyer representing trade union members, and I regularly had to advise clients on their prospects of success in employment tribunal cases. In my experience, if I advised someone at the outset that their case had very little merit, they would rarely pursue it further; as a result, the tribunal did not get clogged up with unmeritorious claims, and judges did not need to spend time dealing with litigants in person. Conversely, if a claim did have prospects, often the early involvement of a lawyer providing objective advice meant that the claim would be resolved far earlier in the process, and often there was no need to resort to costly litigation. That brings home the fact that cutting early legal advice costs the justice system more, because of the number of cases that go forward and the time taken to deal with litigants in person in court.
By restoring early legal advice in the spheres of housing, immigration and welfare, not only would expensive legal proceedings often be avoided, but there would be less strain elsewhere in the system, on such things as housing and welfare costs. For example, it falls to the local authority to house someone who was evicted because of welfare benefit issues, and that often costs a great deal more than legal advice would have. The cost to the NHS when someone lives in a house in total disrepair is likely to be far greater than the cost of early legal advice to resolve the housing issue. As others have said, the extent to which the legal aid budget was cut is a false economy.
It is not only civil law that has suffered under this Government. The criminal justice system has been hit by cuts too, as others have mentioned. Earlier this year, barristers across the country went on strike. They are not a group known for taking industrial action, but they did so following the introduction of a new fees system, which meant that many barristers had to work unpaid while analysing evidence and preparing for trial. As I said, 78% of people agree that justice is as important as health. In the recent book “The Secret Barrister”—I recommend it to anyone who has not already read it—the author sums up the current state of the system:
“In every crumbling, decaying magistrates’ Court and leaking Crown Court, we see every day the law’s equivalent of untreated, neglected patients on hospital trolleys. And every day it is met with a wall of silence.”
The issues affecting the criminal justice system are not down to legal aid alone, but properly financing legal aid would be a good place to start to resolve them. If people are to come into direct contact with the justice system, both they and the public must have confidence that it will deliver justice. Access to justice and the rule of law underpin our society. Yet successive Tory Governments have cut the Ministry of Justice budget by 40%. The idea of access to justice for the many has been eviscerated in just eight years. The Tories have positioned themselves as the party of law, order and justice, but the millions-worth of cuts forced on the Ministry of Justice since 2010 underline how out of touch the Government have become on justice matters.
Legal aid should provide the public with a means to pursue justice regardless of their wealth, yet many are now left to fend for themselves, often facing huge inequality of arms and feeling deep mistrust as to whether the system will be able to deliver for them. Contrary to what the Prime Minister continues to tell us, austerity is by no means over for those seeking justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on obtaining this important and timely debate.
I will begin my assessment of the future of legal aid by outlining its origins. The first legislation to provide for legal help paid for by the state—there had been ad hoc funding for legal representation since Tudor times—was the Poor Prisoners Defence Act 1903. Payment was made only once a prisoner could establish a defence to a criminal charge. At about the same time, there was a “poor man’s lawyer” movement in east London, providing free legal advice up to but not including court. Pro bono representation was also available for divorce, but, again, that was patchy and ad hoc.
In 1944 the wartime coalition Government set up a committee, chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Rushcliffe, to assess the need for legal advice provided by the state. Lord Rushcliffe’s committee’s recommendations were accepted by the Labour Government, which stated in a White Paper that legislation would be introduced
“to provide legal advice for those of slender means and resources, so that no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right; and to allow counsel and solicitors to be remunerated for their services”.
Those are the principles that underpin our legal aid system.
The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 provided legal representation for those of small or moderate means in all courts and tribunals where lawyers normally appeared for private clients. Since then, legal aid has been chipped away by successive Governments. Since the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the legal aid budget has been slashed by £950 million, and many people have been taken out of scope, so that they do not get funding for cases involving matters such as housing disrepair, immigration, welfare benefits and family law.
On 11 July, the Joint Committee on Human Rights produced its report “Enforcing Human Rights”. The Committee said in the report that access to justice was an essential component of the rule of law, and referred to Lord Bingham’s statement:
“Means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve”.
The report was critical of the effect of LASPO, saying that it had
“deleterious and discriminatory effects on particular groups”
“a disproportionate impact on various groups, including disabled people, women, children and migrants.”
Let me consider each of those in turn.
The charity Mind conducted a survey of 10,058 adults in England and Wales. It found that 18% of respondents suffered from stress, depression or other kinds of mental health problems, and that people with mental health problems were almost twice as likely to have experienced legal problems. One in four of those had experienced six or more legal complaints. The fact that the vast majority of those people would find it hard to access legal aid to get the help they need is deeply worrying.
People with immigration problems are also badly affected by LASPO, which took applications for refugee family reunion out of the scope of legal aid. In the absence of legal aid, people with refugee status in the UK are vulnerable to exploitation, as they have to take out informal, high-interest loans to pay for their family reunion applications, which are often complex and not straightforward. There is exceptional case funding, but it is not feasible for many applicants to access it, due to the large proportion of applications rejected. Many people are left in a very difficult situation.
Young people are also affected. According to Youth Access research, 18 to 24-year-olds are significantly more likely to have problems, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, the vast majority—84%—get no help from a professional adviser or lawyer. Of the 15% of 18 to 24-year-olds who recognise that their problem is legal, only 6% are eligible for legal aid on financial grounds.
The situation is just as bad for women. Rights for Women, in its submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, quoted a woman responding to a survey for legal aid who said:
“I earn a low income, yet I’ve been assessed as having too much disposable income…and when you aren’t eligible, you’re expected to pay full solicitors’ costs—there’s no help anywhere in between. I’ve had to face my violent ex-partner in court twice now, and will have to continue to do so as I simply cannot afford costs.”
Even if people are eligible for legal aid, remuneration for lawyers means that there are advice deserts across the country. Legal aid rates today are the same as in 1994, yet inflation has increased prices by 89.3% since then. I recently had the pleasure of shadowing a junior barrister at Thames magistrates court; she told me that she would get a legal aid rate of only £50 for the hearing that she attended.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, has already mentioned advice deserts, which were highlighted in the Committee’s report on criminal legal aid. The report warns of the decline of duty solicitors and says that very few younger lawyers are entering the profession. In Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, west Wales and mid-Wales, more than 60% of criminal law duty solicitors are over 50. The Law Society’s heat map study suggests that criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct if nothing is changed. Many criminal law firms have fragile finances and small profit margins. What will happen if those firms close is deeply worrying.
It is not just criminal law firms that are affected. The House of Commons Library debate pack refers to advice deserts for housing law. It states almost one third of legal aid areas have just one, and in some cases zero, law firms providing legal advice through legal aid. The truth is that legal aid is in crisis and is teetering on the brink of a precipice. It may take generations to recover, if it ever does.
The aims of LASPO were to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense, to target legal aid at those who need it most, to make substantial savings and to deliver better value for money. Having saved £950 million, LASPO certainly has delivered substantial savings, but at what cost? Is it delivering better value for money? Given the closure of many law firms and the spread of advice deserts, people who are eligible are left with little or no choice of solicitors who do legal aid work. Law firms specialising in the relevant area of legal aid are often overrun, and it may be impossible to get an appointment for many weeks, if at all. People may need to travel long distances to get legal advice.
The examples I have set out make it clear that, under LASPO, legal aid is not being targeted at those who need it most. The intention behind LASPO was to discourage adversarial or unnecessarily litigation, but many people who need legal aid do not have the choice—for example, people who need to challenge benefits decisions, which have a more than 50% chance of being overturned at tribunal. If the Minister has any doubt about the impact of the cuts to legal aid, I encourage her, if she has not already done so, to read the excellent book “The Secret Barrister”, which explains how our legal system is broken.
What is to be done? I ask the Minister to do three things. First, restore access to early advice so disputes can be resolved fairly and reasonably, and so people do not embark on ill-advised, costly litigation. Restore access to welfare advice so the people who are most desperate can get the advice and support they need to challenge unfair decisions. Secondly, simplify the criteria for those who need legal aid—at the moment, many people find it hard to access legal aid, and there are conflicting and competing areas of application, which do not make much sense. Finally, justice cannot be done on the cheap. Please find the money to invest in legal aid.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on setting the scene, initiating the debate and giving us all an opportunity to participate in it. There are many more experienced, learned minds in the Chamber with a better legal understanding than me. I am simply here on behalf of my constituents who, without legal aid, would never have seen justice. That is where I am coming from, and that is the point I am going to try to make. I do not have the legal mind of the right hon. and hon. Members who have shared their experience. I am just putting forward a constituency point of view.
As the Minister knows, Northern Ireland has its own legal aid system. I want to outline what we do with it. It might be the envy of other hon. Members when they hear about what we are doing, but has become financially restricted in the past few years. We are working with a new financial regime, but at the same time we have been able to deliver many things.
I am delighted to be able to speak about legal aid. I fully support a system that, if used correctly, fills a gap, and assists and benefits those who have little or no access to legal representation. Solicitors are turning away people who need legal representation because the funding is no longer available. I am not criticising them for that; that is a reality of life. Those on the lowest incomes are excluded from accessing justice if they have savings or assets—for example, a house. Working people on low incomes who are accused of wrongdoing are systematically denied their right to a fair trial, because they cannot access representation even when it is as clear as day that they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. I will give a couple of examples. The Minister is always very responsive to the points of view that we put forward, so I look forward to her response.
There is often only one firm, and sometimes no firms, able to offer legal aid support on housing law, which is a key issue that comes up in my constituency office all the time. It is one of the bread-and-butter issues that we deal with every day. The background information that we received from the Library outlines that legal aid may not be available even when a person’s liberty is at stake, when a person faces the loss of their house, in domestic violence cases and when children might be taken into care. The exemptions for housing law clearly fall at that hurdle.
We look forward to the Government’s review of legal aid, which the Secretary of State promised as far back as March this year in answer to another Member of Parliament, yet it has not been delivered within the timescale that was set out. I am pleased that the Government have now committed to carry out a review by the end of the year, as other hon. Members said, but I seek an assurance from the Minister that that timescale can be met.
I want to make some comments about what we do with legal aid in Northern Ireland and what the scheme means. Legal aid in Northern Ireland currently costs £63.65 million per annum. At present, it falls under two distinct headings: civil legal aid, which provides help and assistance in civil and family matters, and criminal legal aid, which provides help and assistance to those accused of a criminal offence. In fact, legal aid subject to means and merits tests is available for many aspects of the law that are triable in court in Northern Ireland. Despite the reductions in the availability of legal aid, we can still do many things. Many new proposals from UK Government Departments have a direct impact on legal aid expenditure—for example, changing the criminal or civil law, or improving or affecting in any way the rights of individuals—without the impact being immediately apparent. It is therefore essential that an assessment of how policy change might impact on legal aid is made as early as possible. We look to the Minister for some direction on that. With the assistance of colleagues, we will also assess any possible impacts on the work of the courts.
Civil legal aid costs about £38.25 million a year and provides help across a range of areas, such as adoption and affiliation, bail, bankruptcy, children and family matters, divorce, maintenance and other matrimonial issues, injunctions, judicial reviews on negligence, whether general, medical or tripping, and personal injury cases. Within civil legal aid, there are three main stages: legal advice and assistance by way of representation and legal aid, initial advice on any aspect of Northern Ireland law, and qualification, which is subject to an evaluation of the individual’s financial circumstances—the means test.
Legal aid, including assistance by way of representation, provides for comprehensive help including, where required, representation in court. To qualify, two tests must be met. The first involves financial eligibility, and depending on the applicant’s personal circumstances, they may receive free help or may have to pay a contribution towards the cost of the case. The second test involves the merits of the case; a person shall not, for example, be given legal aid in connection with any proceedings unless they show that they have reasonable grounds for taking, defending or being a party thereto.
The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland is currently undertaking a substantial reform programme, which will result in the introduction of civil legal services under the Access to Justice Order (Northern Ireland) 2003, so we are considering changes in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister will be aware of that as she is well on top of her portfolio and understands what we are doing. I appreciate that understanding.
Criminal legal aid costs approximately £25.4 million a year, representing approximately 40% of the total legal aid budget. There are three levels of service: advice and assistance on general criminal matters, under the same provisions for civil cases; free advice and assistance for anyone being interviewed at a police station in connection with a suspected offence, or what they call “PACE advice”; and free legal aid. To qualify, the court must satisfy itself that the means of the accused are insufficient to enable him or her to obtain legal aid and that, in the interests of justice, the accused—or a person brought before the court to be dealt with—has free legal aid.
In satisfying itself, the court may consider, among other matters, whether the offence is serious enough that on conviction a custodial sentence is possible; whether there is a possibility of loss of livelihood or damage to the reputation of a person; whether there is a substantial question of law to be argued; or whether the accused is unable to understand the proceedings, for example if they do not speak English or have mental or emotional issues. Currently there is free legal aid in all criminal proceedings in Northern Ireland. Approximately 35% of the total individuals who appeared in magistrates’ court and 98% of the total individuals who appeared in Crown court were legally aided.
I have given some background, because for the purpose of the debate it is good for everyone to know what we are doing. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members are interested in what we are doing in Northern Ireland, just as I am interested in what happens in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I am very aware of the good that legal aid can deliver to those I often refer to as the “wee man” and “wee woman”. I have a clear social conscience, as do other hon. Members present and the Minister. Our desire to help those who cannot always help themselves has been clear in all contributions. I want to ensure that everyone has access to justice and that those with the financial accessibility do not override those without it, and that fair play and the right to a level playing field are fully and totally justified.
The numerous questions raised by the Library’s background information on legal aid illustrate quite clearly that all is not well with the legal aid system in the UK at the moment. It was introduced with admirable duty and conscience, yet now Government oversee a much lessened scheme. The figures from 2017-18 illustrate that very clearly: only 140,000 civil cases started with legal aid, compared with 785,000 cases in 2010-11, a decrease of 82%. Over the last seven years, legal aid has been reduced by four fifths—a drastic reduction. I am not saying that the data is entirely wrong, but those figures illustrate a clear deficit in the possibilities of legal aid. We have to have a legal aid system that works well for those who need it the most.
In her introduction, the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) referred to tribunals and appeals. In the past, many people would have taken someone with a legal mind along to assist them. That has changed greatly. The hon. Lady is probably like me—probably like all of us—in that we represent our constituents on legal tribunals whatever their benefit issue might be: disability living allowance, personal independence payments, employment and support allowance, or community grants. We do that because it is our duty to, but we also have to learn the rudimentary legal parts of that system so that we can represent the law at the tribunal. In the past, in many cases, that would have been up to solicitors and others of legal mind.
I will always fight for those who need help and will continue to be a voice for them. I conclude as I am conscious that others wish to speak. I say with all sincerity to everyone here and to the Minister in particular that society is measured by its attitude towards and help for the less well off. With legal aid, there is a dearth of that attitude and help that needs to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. I hope the review that the Minister is initiating at her Department will do just that. I call on Government and the Minister to ensure that the legal aid pot is restored and that no financial penury denies those who need it access to legal help. They should have their day in court on an equal basis and never be disadvantaged; justice demands it, and right must and should always persist.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), not only on securing the debate but on his thoroughly comprehensive and powerful introduction to the topic. In fact, I also thank all hon. Members for their incredibly insightful contributions.
Since I was elected, barely more than three years ago, I think this is the fourth, fifth or even sixth time that we have been in Westminster Hall to debate legal aid or wider access-to-justice issues, and yet so little seems to have changed. We are still waiting for the review of LASPO to be completed—never mind implemented—although an end appears to be just about in sight, which would be welcome indeed. Persistence in pushing for reform is therefore essential. As other hon. Members have said, the issues are fundamental ones. Legal aid is crucial to access to justice and the rule of law. As many hon. Members have expressed today, LASPO represents a misguided and dangerous undermining of those fundamental principles, putting access to justice beyond the reach of many through changes to the scope and eligibility criteria for legal aid.
As the Chair of the Justice Committee has said, that is not an academic matter. Numerous hon. Members have provided all sorts of practical examples of the impact of those changes on their constituents, whether those cases concern clinical negligence, miscarriages of justice, family matters, domestic abuse, social security, housing, debt or immigration. Hon. Members have referred repeatedly to the creation of advice deserts. That has all been at a time when, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) rightly pointed out, demand for some of those services could not be higher. Demand is soaring in cases of social security law and immigration law, at a time when the ability to access good legal advice is plummeting.
At the outset, the hon. Member for Hammersmith referred to what seems to have become the Government catchphrase in debates such as this, and it goes to the heart of what LASPO represents. The phrase jars with me, I have to say. Over and over again, the Government say that legal aid is available to “those who need it most”. That jars with me because the goal of any legal aid system should be that legal aid is available to all those who need it, full stop. By acknowledging that legal aid is available only to those who need it most, the Government in essence seem to be saying that LASPO was a legitimate exercise in the rationing of legal aid, accepting that many who need it will nevertheless not get it. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has said, if people do not get legal aid, that means that many of them simply do not get justice.
All Members have highlighted that LASPO’s flaws have been exposed repeatedly, including by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Law Society, the Law Commission and many others. The Justice Committee concluded that the Act had failed to achieve three of its four stated goals. The one successful goal was that of cutting the budget, but that was at the cost of harming access to justice for some litigants.
On that note, it would be interesting to know what LASPO represented for other budgets, including its impact on service provision for homelessness, social work and health. Those services pick up the pieces when people struggle to vindicate their rights under housing law, employment law or social security law. What we do know is the impact that LASPO has had on the courts, as party litigants struggle to make their way through complex litigation. The hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) set that out extremely starkly.
My party supports a comprehensive legal aid system—one that is open-ended, uncapped and demand-led; in other words, one that is much closer to what was in existence in England and Wales before LASPO, and to what still exists in Scotland and, as I understand it, in the Netherlands. The main point that I want to make is that such a system, or a move in the direction of it, as Members have called for today, does not have to be prohibitively expensive. In fact, despite its significantly broader scope and financial eligibility rules—about 70% of people in Scotland would qualify for civil legal aid—the system north of the border still costs slightly less per head of population than that in operation down here, at £25.02, as opposed to £25.54. Why is that?
This week the Library provided me with an interesting set of figures that suggest that although legal aid is provided in many more cases in Scotland, it is done at far less cost. In 2016-17, for example, there were 4,000 grants of assistance per 100,000 inhabitants in Scotland, which is some 75% more than the 2,300 grants per 100,000 inhabitants in England and Wales, but spending in each of those legal aid cases was two thirds higher in England and Wales, at about £1,000, compared with £600 in Scotland.
Those figures seem to be consistent with what far more knowledgeable Members have said today about the value of intervention, even on a small scale at an early stage. One Justice Committee report pointed out:
“The Ministry’s efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”
The more comprehensive system in Scotland has meant spending small amounts of money at a better time, so the overall spend in each individual case has been kept lower. Several hon. Members made a similar point about early advice.
Those Library figures are also consistent with the argument that there are other ways to keep the legal aid bill under control. Most of our previous debates about legal aid have highlighted the work of Professor Alan Paterson OBE, an international expert in legal aid. He pointed out as long ago as 2010, when spending per capita in England and Wales was £38, compared with £29 in Scotland, that much of that difference was down to the success of reform of court procedures in Scotland, both civil and criminal, leading to reduced legal aid spending.
The recent independent review of legal aid in Scotland highlighted other ways in which the legal aid budget could be reduced. Indeed, it has been reduced there since 2011. Falling recorded crime means fewer court cases and less criminal legal aid, as does greater use of diversion from the courts through fines. More sensible use of civil courts and jurisdictions has contributed to a drop in civil legal aid spending.
In short, legal aid is a vital part of ensuring access to justice and the rule of law. It should never have been made a victim of austerity, and it was a totally false economy to make it one. LASPO should be ripped up—it was a bad piece of legislation and has proved a total failure. Tinkering around the edges is no longer enough. A comprehensive system is required for England and Wales, and it is required urgently.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this important debate. He pointed out the key target of those legal aid reforms—that those who were most in need would get legal aid. That is why we are having the debate—because we do not believe that that principle has been upheld. He put three key asks to the Minister, and I hope that she will respond to them.
It is essential that, regardless of someone’s wealth or background, our justice system should be easily accessible so that everyone is on the same playing field when it comes to the law of the land. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) gave us a historical perspective on how that principle came about. Government cuts of a third in overall spending on legal aid since 2012 have, however, made a mockery of that principle. To quote the words of the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the pendulum has swung “too far” the other way.
There are many reasons why people may find that they need legal aid, unfortunately, and we have heard many of them today from speeches and numerous interventions, in particular from Opposition Members. Very real problems have been addressed, to do with issues including housing, benefits, those with disabilities, and immigration, where people simply feel as though they are on their own. Like me, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) does not come from a legal background, but as a constituency MP he gave a perspective on what is happening on the ground and why reform is needed.
When people have fallen on hard times, the last thing that they can cope with is a lengthy battle to get legal representation or, worse, learning to represent themselves in court, and yet that is exactly what the Government are forcing people to do. Legal professionals have warned of a sharp rise in the number of people forced to represent themselves in court to access the justice that they deserve. Will the Minister tell me what the rise in litigants in person has been?
Recently, we learned that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is launching an official inquiry into whether legal aid cuts have left victims of discrimination barred from justice, after BuzzFeed News revealed that not one person with a discrimination complaint against an employer or business had been referred to see a legal aid lawyer in 2016-17. The number of people receiving any publicly funded legal advice at all in discrimination cases has fallen by almost 60% since the Government’s changes. Will the Minister tell us whether there been a 60% drop in discrimination? I sincerely doubt that.
A particularly pernicious aspect of the Government’s attacks on legal aid is the impact on victims of domestic violence. It is well known that abusers often use the legal system to continue their abuse. There are a number of issues with the Legal Aid Agency’s assessment of women’s financial eligibility for legal aid via the means test. Such tests too often result in women making unaffordable contributions, or even having to sell their home to pay legal fees. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), from Plaid Cymru, talked about the re-traumatisation process that that puts survivors of domestic violence through.
Justice is being denied not only in those areas of law that have been specifically removed from the scope of legal aid. According to the Law Commission, advice deserts have appeared throughout the country, because the huge legal aid cuts have had the knock-on effect of forcing providers and law centres to shut up shop, providing a barrier to legal aid even for those who are eligible. That point was made particularly forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) talked about the shortage of reliable legal advice and about the danger of unqualified organisations giving advice. She discussed the impact of court closures on access to justice. As a fellow—sister—Member of Parliament who represents a town, I know about the public transport challenges and all the other difficulties that court closures will create in constituencies such as ours.
Charities such as Shelter have warned that thousands of people a year are being made homeless because they cannot find lawyers to help them to prevent eviction. Vulnerable people are being left to fend for themselves, which is totally unacceptable. The human cost of LASPO is clear, but surely there should be some benefit from the Government’s decisions. One might assume that the Government are saving money through the cuts, which could be reinvested in other worthy causes. Yet, as is so often the case with the Tory austerity agenda, the cuts are economically short-sighted. As a result, the taxpayer is footing a huge bill.
The Government recently revealed that the justice budget has, in real terms, fallen by 40% since 2010-11. The Law Society, however, has found that the restriction on access to early legal advice and the sharp rise in litigants in person mean that many more cases end up in lengthy court hearings, rather than being resolved elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) brought in her experience as a former trade union lawyer of how early legal advice can help the system to run smoothly and economically. Mediation starts have fallen by 55% since 2012, forcing into the courts more cases that previously could have been settled.
Does the Minister agree with the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, who said that LASPO cuts are likely to provide a “false economy” because of increased pressure on courts? The charity Citizens Advice estimates that every £1 of legal aid spent on housing advice could potentially save £2.34 for the public purse, and that lack of support to resolve a case early means potentially far more costly court proceedings down the line. Those hidden costs must be factored into any assessment of the savings made from legal aid cuts. Will the Government, as part of their review of legal aid, publish their own cost-benefit analysis of the wider impact of reducing early legal advice?
A Labour Government will return all funding for early legal advice, because we know that prevention is better than cure. We will re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts, restore legal advice in all housing cases to protect 50,000 households a year against rogue landlords, and review the legal aid means test. We will change the rules for legal aid at inquests, so that bereaved families are not left to fend for themselves against an inequality of arms. That is a fitting proposal, given that it is a year to the day since the chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and adviser to the Home Secretary called for legal aid to be granted to families who lost loved ones in the disaster, so that they can be represented at inquests. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have any plans to do the same?
There have been changes this year to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme by which legal aid criminal barristers are paid, provoking a backlash both from lawyers and in this House. Labour forced a vote against those measures. The Government responded to the threat of further action from lawyers with a Ministry of Justice announcement of £15 million to go into a new criminal Bar funding scheme. There are now complaints that that deal could be reneged on, and many are concerned that the funding will be more like £8 million. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government will honour the letter and spirit of that deal, and confirm a date for the implementation of the new scheme?
We welcome the review of the impact of LASPO, but for many victims it comes far too late and without a clear timetable or commitment to act on any recommendations. Will the Minister confirm when the review will conclude, which organisations the Government have consulted and when they plan to introduce any recommendations? For the sake of the thousands of people harmed by those measures, the Government must take seriously the concerns of service providers, legal professionals, court staff, the chair of the Justice Committee and victims themselves, and act to restore access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.
I understand the Minister has an enormous number of points to respond to, but if she could give Mr Andy Slaughter a chance to wind up the debate, I am sure we would all appreciate it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing the debate. As the shadow Justice Minister when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was going through the House, he has considerable knowledge of the legislation. He mentioned the law centre in this constituency, but he did not mention that he has been a board member of that law centre for 30 years. I am sure he has contributed to the services that it provides. Like him, I pay tribute to the work that Carol Storer has done over the past decade as the director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. This week, she was rightly nominated for LawWorks’ outstanding contribution to access to justice award.
We have heard some very powerful speeches from across the House, and I have listened carefully, as have my officials. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made the important point that this debate is about matters that affect people’s lives. At various points, an impartial observer might have thought that this Government spend a paltry sum, or no money at all, on legal aid but that is not the case at all. Legal aid has always been and remains available for the highest priority cases where people are at their most vulnerable: when they are about to be made homeless or to lose their children, or they are accused of a criminal offence that may result in the loss of their liberty.
I want to make it clear, as I have many times, that the Government make a significant investment in legal aid. We spend £1.6 billion a year on it, which is a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. That is in addition to other sources of funding to ensure justice and the fair determination of rights: in the last three years we have spent almost £6.5 million in addition through the litigants in person support strategy.
The Government have not stood still on legal aid. Over the past year, we have improved its provision in a number of areas. In January we broadened the accepted evidence for domestic violence and reduced all time limits. In February we broadened the scope of legal aid for prisoners, and in June we updated the legal guidance for inquests on deaths in custody. I recently committed to laying an amendment to LASPO, to bring immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated migrant children into the scope of legal aid. We are also reviewing the provision of legal aid for parties involved in inquest proceedings, examining both the scope and eligibility criteria.
I recognise and welcome the positive changes that have happened since the Minister has been in the Department. On the total spend, does she agree that, although we provide significant sums and compare well with other common law jurisdictions, a fifth of Ministry of Justice expenditure is a fifth of 1% of total Government expenditure? When we look at the scope for additional funding, we are looking at increasing a fraction of a fraction.
My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable and experienced in many matters, including this one. He does a great amount of work on behalf of the legal aid professions and people who use the services we provide through Justice. As always, he makes an important point. I have listened carefully to all the points that have been made in this debate and throughout my time as Minister.
I will answer some of the many points made in the debate—you are right that I will not have time to respond to all of them, Mr Bailey. The hon. Member for Hammersmith spoke about the provisions in the Budget, but failed to mention the provision to build a new prison at Glen Parva, £30 million for prisons, and £20.5 million for the wider justice system.
A number of Members mentioned that legal aid is not provided in a number of areas. It is important to be clear about where legal aid is available and where it is not; we are reviewing where it is not available and has been taken out of scope. One reason why people do not access legal aid may be that they do not think it is available at all. Where we provide it, we need to say loud and clear that it is available. Some Members mentioned the lack of availability for housing and medical negligence, but the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) rightly acknowledged that legal aid is available when a person’s house is at risk of repossession.
I acknowledge that point, but that was in the context of my arguing that these things are only as useful as the number of providers. A central argument advanced by the Opposition is about the loss of providers—the fact that people are not bidding for contracts. Does the Minister recognise and acknowledge that point?
It was actually the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) who said that legal aid for housing was not available, and I was trying to highlight that the hon. Member for Westminster North recognised that it is. She makes an important point about legal aid providers. When civil legal aid contracts were recently put out to tender, 1,700 bidders took part, but we need to ensure that people who want to do this work are available to do it across the country, not just in high-density areas, and we need to ensure that there is provision in more sparsely populated areas where those contracts are less lucrative.
What does the Minister say to the Justice Committee’s suggestion that, although housing may be within scope when people get to the stage of impending homelessness, we should invest smaller sums earlier to avoid catastrophe in the first place?
The point that it is useful to nip problems in the bud and address them at the outset, so that they do not escalate, has been made and heard. Changes were made to LASPO to ensure that legal aid was available where people were at their most vulnerable. On clinical negligence, we should make clear that legal aid is available for compensation claims in respect of neurological trauma caused to children early in life due to negligence by medical professionals. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith recognised, by putting such things in the scope of legal aid, we are protecting the most vulnerable.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned social security claims. We are introducing significant technological changes—things such as digitisation and better communication with judges using technology—to make the tribunal system much more accessible.
Many Members, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), mentioned family law. LASPO rightly removed most private family matters from the scope of legal aid, but legal aid remains available for mediation in certain family disputes where parties meet the eligibility criteria. Since November 2014, legal aid has covered the costs of the mediation information and assessment meeting and the first mediation session for both parties, even if just one is eligible for legal aid.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned exceptional case funding. Let me update the figures he gave. The number of people making applications and the number of applications granted have both increased. Some 746 applications for ECF were received in the first quarter of 2018, of which 59%—390—were granted. That is the highest proportion and number of grants since the scheme began.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) both mentioned domestic violence. Legal aid is available to those seeking protection from an abuser in domestic abuse cases, and it was granted in more than 13,000 cases last year.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) raised important points about Wales. She has asked parliamentary questions on a number of matters, and I am happy to meet her to discuss the issues she has raised.
I was interested to hear the points by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) about children. I was pleased to meet him earlier this week to discuss some of those issues.
It is important to set out where legal aid is available, but we recognise the impact of the changes made by the coalition Government in 2012, which many Members rightly highlighted. As all hon. Members know, my Department is looking at the impacts of LASPO. The hon. Member for Hammersmith said he is looking for positive news, but as a former shadow Justice Minister, he knows as well as I do that it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the review. We will respond at the end of the year.
I am happy to set out the process, which I outlined at the APPG on legal aid earlier this week. The evidence-gathering process has been comprehensive. My officials met more than 80 individuals and organisations from across the justice system to gather evidence, and they held two rounds of consultative group meetings with organisations, representatives and academics from across the justice system. At a third round of meetings, we will examine opportunities to consider further legal support. Officials will meet the Family Justice Council to discuss its concerns and recommendations in further detail, and are due to have a second meeting with the Civil Justice Council to explore its recommendations further.
I have held a number of instructive roundtables with those who have used our justice system, both with and without legal aid. I have met a number of Members of the House of Lords—last week I sat down with Lord Bach and other members of his commission on access to justice, and I have met Lord Low. Last week, I met the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I have also met many parliamentarians, and individuals from the advice and third sector who work with the most vulnerable in our society.
Alongside those meetings, much material has been submitted throughout the review, and we are considering that. It is clear that there are many issues to consider, from the stage at which advice is sought to types of provider and methods of provision. Many experts highlighted the value that technology can bring to individuals to navigate their rights in the court process.
We now use technology in every part of our lives, and justice should not be immune from that advancement. That is why, through the courts reform programme, the Government are investing £1 billion in updating our justice system for the 21st century. That programme is helping people to access court better, at the same time as changing outdated back-office systems. People can now apply for divorce online, we are trialling online applications for probate, and people can be updated about their social security claim through their mobile phone. Our reforms help vulnerable witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence so they do not need to see their attacker in court, and they enable those who find it difficult to travel due to disability or age to take part in proceedings by video link. That investment will transform how people experience the justice system with digital services, making justice more accessible and straightforward as well as using taxpayers’ money wisely.
I sense that the Minister is drawing her remarks to a close, but I wonder whether she will address a few more of my points. First, online and telephone services are valuable, but some people need face-to-face services. Will she look at that? Secondly, I know there is a separate review going on in relation to the representation of deceased people’s relatives at inquests. Does she know what stage that has reached? Will it report, or will it form part of the same review?
Finally, will the Minister look at the independence of the Legal Aid Agency? There are serious concerns that, in specific cases or more generally, there has been interference in the agency’s decisions because it is not sufficiently at arm’s length from the Government. We may need to deal with that as a discrete issue, but anything she can say to reassure us on that would be helpful.
I am happy to answer those points. We did not need to commit to looking at inquests, because LASPO made no changes to the inquests system, but the Government recognise that it is an important part of access to justice and we are looking at it. However, that is not the same review; it is running alongside the legal aid review.
Will the hon. Gentleman remind me of his first point? On his third point, the Legal Aid Agency is independent.
On inquests, I simply wanted to know, if the review is separate, when it is likely to report. My first point was about face-to-face advice.
Ah, yes. Of course it is important to consider all methods of provision. We have the telephone gateway, and many advice centres are looking at digital methods of offering advice. We do of course fund face-to-face advice at the moment in the provision of legal aid, and it forms an important part of giving advice.
As I mentioned, we are in the process of carrying out a legal aid review. All today’s contributions, along with the previous debate in this Chamber secured by the hon. Member for Westminster North, yesterday’s meeting with the APPG and the contributions and submissions in the other meetings we have held, are an important part of that process. I thank all hon. Members who spoke for their contributions, which we will take on board.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey, for the second part of the debate. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. I will not abuse the position of having time left to speak for more than the two minutes normal for the response. I am grateful for that time.
I am grateful to everybody who has spoken and for the responses we had from the Front Benchers. There is so much consensus in the room that one might wonder what all the fuss is about. I know most of the speeches came from the Opposition, but there was an authoritative contribution from the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), several interventions from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the contribution from the Minister. We have heard unanimity on the importance of legal aid, as well as an appreciation of how it needs to work and why it is not working at the moment.
Perhaps that is not surprising. As Members of Parliament we are perhaps in a unique position to see the usefulness and the essential nature of legal aid, from the top and the bottom. We see it in our surgeries, where people bring us increasingly legal problems and we think about how we can resolve them. People have not been well served by the system but are now doubly not being well served in having their grievance addressed. Many colleagues gave examples about areas such as housing and welfare benefits.
A lot of points were made about the contribution of legal aid to the rule of law, whether in ensuring that those accused of criminal offences and threatened with the loss of their liberty have proper representation to avoid miscarriages of justice, or about the broader principle—not simply an individual’s cause being addressed—of policing good behaviour and ensuring that the institutions that we all rely upon give a proper service and do not let down the people they know. Those institutions could be anything from the Department for Work and Pensions to the NHS. Those are essential functions.
The problem is that many of us do not have confidence that the real damage that LASPO has done so far will be addressed. I understand why the Minister cannot say more today, but I hope that she found it useful to hear the comments that have been made. She knows what we are looking for. However the money has to be found and however persuasive she has to be with her colleagues in the Department and in the Treasury, she knows that the savings achieved so far are way in excess of what was intended or predicted, but she also knows that the collapse in service has been far greater than was provided for. That in itself should give the opportunity to make good some of the worst deficiencies that have occurred since then.
I am grateful to everybody who has spoken today. I am also grateful to those from Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre who have attended the debate. I know that they will be taking the message back to many of their fellow practitioners that we are listening, we are engaged and hopefully we are informed, but it is the Government’s response that we are waiting on before, as the Minister said, the end of the year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of legal aid.