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Legal Aid: North-West

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of legal aid in the north-west.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue.

“If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’”

Those are wise words, I am sure we all agree, from the ancient philosopher Sophocles, but universal access to justice is far from a reality here in the UK. Justice is being rationed. On criminal legal aid, as the Law Society states:

“Cuts and the lack of a significant rise in criminal legal aid rates in 25 years has meant the work is financially unviable and solicitors are being forced from legal aid work. Since April 2012, the number of criminal legal aid firms has dropped by 585 (over a third).”

And in the north-west, it shows. There are over 47,000 cases outstanding in the north-west’s courts. Since 2020, there have been over 5,000 ineffective trials in the north-west, and staggeringly, in some areas of the north-west there are not enough duty solicitors to cover days of the week, let alone the number of people who need representation. The Southport criminal duty solicitor scheme has only two solicitors, and Knowsley has only six.

On civil legal aid, the situation is no less acute. The Law Society has mapped “legal deserts”, areas that show the devastating gaps forming around the country in the provision of housing, community care, education, welfare benefits, and immigration and asylum legal aid. In the north-west, 49% of residents live in local authorities with no housing legal aid providers, compared with just 3% in London, and 61% in local authorities with no community care legal aid providers, compared with 25% in London.

I applaud the work of the Greater Manchester Law Centre, which grew out of protests against cuts to legal aid. I also place on record my huge thanks to the Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre, known locally as the fourth emergency service. Both organisations try to fill the gaps in the legal aid advice drought that Salford faces, and their staff and volunteers are a lifeline for so many people. However, the reality is that legal representation based largely on charity and volunteerism should not need to exist. Access to justice, just like access to the NHS, should be a universal service available to all.

So what happened? On criminal legal aid, much of the crisis is the result of cuts to legal aid across a range of serious offences, including murder and rape, and a failure to pay for the extra hours a week undertaken by criminal barristers to meet the demands of trials in courts. Since the Conservatives have been in power, criminal advocates have suffered a 40% real-terms drop in earnings from prosecuting and defending.

On civil legal aid, from 2010 the austerity agenda forced through a wide range of cuts. Legal representation on many issues was deemed a luxury by the Government. Those changes were enshrined in legislation through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. LASPO ended the right to legal representation in huge areas of the law: divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefits and education. People in desperate need of representation were essentially priced out of the legal system. As a result, many people no longer even try to launch legal challenges. The number of civil legal aid matters initiated reduced by 84% between 2009-10 and 2016-17, and it remained relatively stable at the lower rate from 2017 to 2020. Alongside a fall in the number of cases, there was around a 35% cut in the budget for civil legal aid, from £1.2 billion in 2010-11 to £786 million in 2019-20. Where legal aid remains, it is very tightly means-tested, making it out of reach for many.

There are three major causes of the legal aid crisis that the Government need to address today. The first is the impact of austerity and the resulting cost of providing a legal service. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group shows that in 2010, £1.153 billion was spent on criminal legal aid and £925 million on civil legal aid, with a grand total of £2.156 billion spent on legal aid in England and Wales. If we fast forward 11 years to 2020-21, the most recent figures show £563 million spent on criminal legal aid and £724 million on civil, with a total of £1.319 billion. That is nearly a 40% cut in legal aid funding.

One of the most impactful areas has been funding provided for early legal advice. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group says that this has dramatically changed the case mix that providers can run and the stage in the development of a legal problem at which a client can seek advice and a provider can intervene. This is bad not only because that cut in early advice funding undermines the ability of the legal aid providers to continue to sustain a legal aid business model, but because those people facing housing problems and other early stage assistance are unable to seek help in the early stages, thus worsening their situation to the point of possession proceedings, for example, which could have been avoided.

The Government’s early legal advice pilot scheme is to be welcomed, but honestly, we know that early legal advice works. We do not need a pilot scheme—we need proper funding for early advice right across the UK.

It must also be noted that the current legal aid tendering process locks providers out of the system until a legal aid agency opens a formal tender round. Providers cannot apply for contracts on an ad hoc basis, and with large-scale tender processes four to five years apart, the number of providers is generally always in decline.

Secondly, legal aid rates have suffered decades of cuts and freezes, and, quite simply, legal aid lawyers are voting with their feet. The number of civil legal aid providers has reduced dramatically—from 3,555 in 2012-13 to 2,342 in 2020—while the number of criminal legal aid providers has reduced from 1,733 to 1,174. Those figures are likely to have fallen further following the pandemic.

Locally, the Greater Manchester Law Centre is aware of two large legal aid housing providers in Greater Manchester that are moving out of legal aid work, particularly housing advice, in the next six months. In the north-west, we have been made aware of a large not-for-profit in north Lancashire that has just given notice on its legal aid housing and debt contracts, meaning there will be limited provision in northern Lancashire, including Preston, Morecambe and Lancaster.

In addition, recruitment is a massive issue. Low pay and long hours mean that legal aid lawyers are getting older and are not being replaced. It has taken initiatives such as the Justice First Fellowship programme funded by the Legal Education Foundation—a charity, not the Government—to support the next generation of legal aid lawyers.

Finally, legal aid just does not cover the issues faced by many people. Employment law is no longer covered, except regarding discrimination issues, so unless someone is a member of a trade union, which often offers free legal advice to its members, they are not likely to qualify for legal representation. Indeed, no win, no fee lawyers are not really interested in lower level, low income work, and ACAS, great as it is, does not provide legal advice.

The same is true in many cases for debt, immigration and domestic violence. On welfare rights, only a tiny percentage of cases fulfil the criteria for legal aid, despite clients being on low incomes. The staggering fact, however—as I know from the work of the Salford Unemployed Resource Centre, which provides advocacy support at tribunals—is that the majority of benefit sanctions cases that are brought to a tribunal get overturned. That gives rise to the question: how many people across the UK have suffered through these inhumane sanctions and benefits decisions because they cannot access an advocate? As we know, many have tragically taken their own life.

It is clear that urgent action is required. The Law Society calls on the Government immediately to raise civil legal aid rates in line with inflation since 2020 to secure firms’ financial liability. Will the Minister confirm that today? In addition, the Government should review civil legal aid, carry out a cost benefit analysis of the value of civil aid, and broaden its scope significantly. They must also reform how it is administered in order to make the system more efficient and less burdensome on practitioners. What action will the Minister take on those issues today? Furthermore, to begin to reverse the decline of criminal legal aid, the Government must start by implementing the recommendations of the independent review of criminal legal aid, especially its recommendation to increase by 15% the criminal legal aid rates, as soon as possible. Will the Minister commit to that today? If not, why not?

Ultimately, the Government must accept that the right to legal aid must be enshrined as a fundamental universal right. Following the early legal advice pilot, the Government might offer small exemptions to LASPO, but that will not be good enough. We need to see significant reforms. We need to see the right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance on a broad range of issues that affect their liberty and quality of life, without facing costs that they cannot afford. Justice is the cornerstone of democracy, and a society that rations justice in the way that the UK is currently doing is not a democracy but, frankly, on a dangerous path towards barbarism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for securing this important debate.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on our justice system, which was already on its knees from 12 years of Tory austerity cuts that have seen the Ministry of Justice lose a quarter of its budget over the past 10 years. The cuts have run deep, with the reductions in legal aid and the increase in court and tribunal fees tipping the scales of justice against those who cannot afford to pay and who are invariably the most in need of such services.

I thank the law centres in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency—the fantastic Merseyside Law Centre and Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre—which have raised concerns about the desperate situation that they face as a result of the drastic impact of the LASPO cuts on legal aid, waiting times and availability of advice, which have left our legal system barely functioning.

On top of the pressures caused by the pandemic, the cost of living crisis caused by the Government will increase the number of constituents facing problems with rent arrears, welfare benefits, employment disputes, crime and domestic violence. We are standing on a cliff edge, and the poorest and most vulnerable are being left without legal protections and support.

In Liverpool, we are acutely aware of how stacked the scales of justice are against ordinary people. Faced with the unimaginable devastation of losing their loved ones in traumatic circumstances, the Hillsborough families were forced to face the full might of the state as the establishment closed ranks to save its own neck. The families and survivors were given no legal aid funding. In their darkest hours, when they should have been free to grieve for their loved ones, they were instead forced to fundraise to fight for justice. Against the odds, they uncovered the truth. Sadly, however, justice has still not been served.

Thanks to the fantastic work of the families and survivors, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the Hillsborough law is being brought forward. It will provide properly funded legal support for bereaved families at inquest and ensure parity of legal funding for families and public bodies at inquest. It will also introduce a charter for families and a duty of candour on public servants during inquiries, and it will provide a public advocate to act for families during inquests.

Although we urgently need funding to tackle the courts backlog and ensure that justice is a right available to all, not just the privileged few, we also need laws that force public officials and private companies to come clean about wrongdoings and failures. Time and again we have raised the need for these changes, but despite sympathetic platitudes from the Government, we have yet to see action. How much longer can we wait? Will the Minister take the opportunity—here and now—to commit this Government to bring forward these changes in legislation at the very next possible opportunity?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this important and timely debate.

Access to justice is a fundamental and basic right. Justice cannot be said to be just if it is afforded only to those who can afford it. Therefore, without legal aid, there is no access to justice, and the rule of law breaks down for millions of people.

That is what we have seen over the past decade because, alongside the Government’s harsh and sustained attack on the welfare system, deep cuts to legal aid have denied people with little in the way of financial means their legal rights. Across Merseyside, there has been a 41% reduction in solicitors firms providing legal aid since 2012-13, and a 20% fall in solicitors providing criminal legal aid within the same period. Yet these figures only paint part of the picture. Every missed opportunity for proper legal advice may be the difference between someone with a disability receiving or being refused the support they are actually legally entitled to; it may be the difference between someone subject to domestic abuse, domestic violence, being able to take action to stop their physical or financial abuse.

In my Liverpool, Walton constituency, I am proud to host regular surgeries at my office in Anfield, in partnership with the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, which provides free legal advice to members of the public on special educational needs cases. The sessions allow parents to obtain a proper education, health and care needs assessment for their child, or receive assistance to appeal to tribunal on matters including the choice of school.

I want to share with the Chamber an email I recently received from a constituent who attended one of the clinics. She said:

“When we received the ‘no decision’ letter last year, it was unbelievable how stressful and emotional the situation made us feel for our child and her future secondary school journey. But on attending the advice session you provided, it gave us the hope and positivity we needed to go ahead with the appeal. All we want is for our child to attend school, be happy and thrive, without worry, and for her to now receive an assessment. We hope this will be the case.”

I want to put on record my thanks to Deborah Tyfield and the wider team at the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, as well as the nearby law centres in Vauxhall and Merseyside that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) mentioned. Those organisations provide vital advice to my constituents and people across Liverpool, and yet they tell me how difficult it is to survive in the current legal aid environment.

The absence of adequate legal aid funding has driven out many providers, leaving remaining services overwhelmed. Therefore, the Government must act on the independent review of criminal legal aid. They must act on its recommendation to increase criminal aid rates by 15% to ensure that advice providers can continue to serve local communities. Civil legal aid rates, which have not risen for over 20 years and have faced real-terms cuts, must also rise. A Government who were serious about upholding justice and the rule of law would act to ensure that communities such as mine get the access to justice that they deserve.

I want to finish on the Hillsborough law. My city of Liverpool knows all about injustice. More than three decades since the Hillsborough disaster, no one has been held to account for the unlawful killing of 97 people. The long fight of the bereaved families and survivors is all the evidence we need to know that the legal system is broken. It is weighted in favour of the powerful and against working people and communities. That is why I support the campaign for a Hillsborough law, which would include a series of measures to rebalance the scales of justice: first, a statutory duty on public officials, including police officers; secondly, publicly funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests and an end to limitless legal spending by public bodies, to put those affected by public disaster on a level playing field; thirdly, a public advocate to act for families of the deceased after major incidents, a proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has brought before this House but that has shamefully been repeatedly blocked by this Government; and fourthly, a charter for families bereaved through public disaster that is legally binding on all public bodies. Those are the changes we need if we are to build a justice system worthy of the name.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on having secured this important debate. My learned friends will know better than anyone that there is no greater honour for a practitioner of law than to stand up for the rights of the poor and innocent, but today, there is simply no incentive for lawyers or their firms to engage in legal aid work. Over the past 30 years, fees for civil legal aid work have more than halved in real terms, while fees for criminal aid have similarly fallen far behind inflation.

The consequences have been devastating. Countless firms providing legal aid have folded, while the number of criminal aid providers has fallen by a fifth in Merseyside in just the past 10 years. Fewer and fewer trained solicitors are deciding to enter this important field, meaning that the average age of a criminal duty solicitor working in the north-west today is now 51. Based on current trends, in just a few years’ time there will be no legal aid provision whatsoever in some parts of our region. No corner of the UK has been worse affected by the plummeting numbers of legal aid practitioners than the north-west, and it sounds like my constituency of Birkenhead is being hit hardest of all.

In our region alone there are 46,000 cases waiting to be heard by the courts, leaving thousands of victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime still waiting for justice to be done. It is the poorest who are bearing the brunt: as a representative of some of the most deprived communities in the UK, I am inundated every single day by people seeking support on complex housing, debt and welfare cases. My constituents have the right to expect quality legal advice, but the sad reality is that providers of such advice have become few and far between. Indeed, the legal aid directory now lists just seven organisations with contracts to offer welfare benefit services in the north-west—one for every million people. In the midst of the spiralling cost of living crisis, with so many millions of people dependent on a cruel and often opaque benefits system just to get by, that is an astonishing failure on the part of this Government.

What are the Government doing to address this unfolding catastrophe? Ministers talk about the need to be tough on crime, but that means nothing to the countless victims in my constituency who are still waiting for their day in court. Instead of taking the action that is so badly needed to tackle the historic backlog in our courts, Ministers are spending their time attempting to erect even more barriers to justice with the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, while their colleagues push ahead with the undemocratic attempt to criminalise peaceful protest; and all the while, more cases pile up on the docket.

The scale of the crisis facing our legal system is unprecedented, but it is not too late for the Government to start putting things right. After 12 long years of allowing the pleas of the legal profession to fall on deaf ears, Ministers must now urgently implement the 15% increase in criminal legal aid fees recommended by the Bellamy review and outline a long-term plan to create a more sustainable sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I am also grateful to everybody who has spoken today, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) who secured this important debate. There is much consensus in the room on the importance of legal aid, as well as an appreciation of how it should work and why it is not working now.

It is fair to say that the legal aid system is broken. As Members of Parliament, we all meet constituents who are in desperate need of both civil and criminal legal aid. From housing, welfare and immigration issues to more serious criminal cases, access to legal aid is essential to protect people’s rights and livelihood. We are suffering from the serial underfunding of the entire legal aid sector, paired with a strict means test and a huge backlog in the criminal courts. We know that justice delayed is justice denied.

Thousands across the north-west are impacted by this. We have already heard a number of examples of how it impacts ordinary people’s lives in the north-west. I recently learned about a couple who were referred to the Vauxhall law centre in Liverpool. Self-employed and unable to work during the pandemic, the couple depleted their savings and eventually fell into rent arrears. When the eviction ban was lifted, their landlord issued them with an eviction notice but, by the time the claim was issued at court, the couple had returned to work, and therefore failed the means test for legal aid. Their savings had gone; their earnings barely covered their bills. Thankfully, the law centre was able to provide support and ensure that the possession order was set aside.

Law centres such as that one are providing an emergency service up and down the country, preventing people from facing destitution, homelessness and even deportation. I want to put on record my thanks to Greater Manchester Law Centre and others for that vital work. It is not right for the third sector to pick up the pieces of the Government’s mess. These issues are not new and have been festering for a decade of Tory austerity. Since 1986, there have been progressive reductions in the scope of civil and criminal legal aid, along with strict financial requirements for eligibility, culminating in LASPO in 2012.

As a result, legal aid is now accessible only to less than a quarter of the population, and only for criminal defence and some very limited areas of civil law. Civil legal aid is usually available only in the direst circumstances where specific criteria are met, such as domestic violence, discrimination or risk of homelessness. Even when those conditions are met, there is no guarantee that a person will be granted legal aid. More than a third of women who have experienced domestic violence are unable to satisfy the Government’s strict requirements for providing proof, and are therefore denied access to legal aid. That is worsened by the fact that there is no remuneration to firms for assisting clients in gathering necessary evidence. As a result, victims must face their abusers in the family court without legal advice or representation.

Legal aid providers have also suffered considerably. Legal aid fees have not increased in more than 20 years, making it unsustainable for many firms to take on legal aid work, creating a shortage of legal aid lawyers, whose capacity to take on these cases is severely limited. The number of criminal legal aid litigators has fallen by almost 30% since 2012-13 in the north-west. The case for civil legal aid provision is even more dire, with what the Law Society describes as “advice deserts” appearing throughout the country. That means that even those who are eligible for legal aid face regional barriers to accessing it. The impacts of that can be felt across the justice system.

To put that in perspective, there are more than 47,000 outstanding criminal cases in the north-west courts. Furthermore, since 2020 there have been more than 5,000 ineffective trials in our region. Those are trials that do not go ahead as planned because of the action or inaction of the defence, the prosecution or the court, including unavailable counsel. That means that there are thousands of victims, witnesses and defendants in the north-west left without justice.

In December 2021, Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, chair of the independent review of criminal legal aid, published his report and recommendations on criminal legal aid in England and Wales. The Law Society has called on the Government to act on the review’s recommendations as quickly as possible, but they have so far failed to do so. The recent decision by the Criminal Bar Association to ballot in direct response to the Government’s failure to respond to the Bellamy review should be a cause for great concern. By the end of March, the Government will have had the Bellamy review in their lap for some four months. Victims, defendants, witnesses and criminal lawyers cannot wait any longer, because the backlog will remain stubbornly high the longer the Government take to act and risk the complete collapse of the criminal justice system.

Criminal advocates have suffered a drop of 40% in real-terms earnings for prosecuting and defending criminal cases over the past decade. That has been a result of cuts to legal aid rates across a range of offences, including murder and rape. There has also been a failure to pay anything for the dozens of extra hours a week undertaken by criminal barristers to meet the demands of the massive backlog of trials that the courts themselves are buckling under. The Government’s repeated stubbornness on fees has caused publicly minded criminal barristers and solicitors to walk from their chosen careers, meaning that their victims are being denied justice. We cannot reduce a record backlog of nearly 50,000 criminal trials if there are not enough lawyers to prosecute and defend.

Ultimately, cuts to criminal and civil legal aid while the Tories have been in power have contributed to a crisis in our criminal justice system and risk creating a two-tier legal system. Under those circumstances, people in the north-west are at a substantial disadvantage against the parties with access to legal advice and representation, undermining the core principle of equality before the law. Without adequate legal aid, victims are denied justice and criminals left to walk our streets.

The erosion of access to legal aid represents a threat to the rule of law. It does not matter what legal rights an individual has on paper if they do not have the means to vindicate them. The Government pay lip service to levelling up the country. When will they level up access to justice?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Fovargue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for calling this very important debate. I think we all agree on the importance of this subject. I pay tribute to colleagues for their words and to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who I enjoyed meeting as part of the engagement on the criminal legal aid review. In particular, I also wish to put on record my thanks to all the practitioners and everyone working in the courts in the north-west throughout the criminal justice system who helped us keep justice going during the pandemic. They were very challenging circumstances for all of them and particularly in the early months for those who were there face to face and in person, at a time when there was a great fear about the consequences of doing so.

To be clear, I believe that legal aid and legal advice play an incredibly important role in upholding justice and the rule of law, which are both vital tenets of our constitution. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles spoke about the importance of legal aid in the context of democracy. Access to justice is a fundamental right, and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system.

We usually spend around £1.7 billion annually on legal aid, which provides crucial support for the most vulnerable in society, ensuring that they can effectively access justice when they need to. While that amount was lower in 2020-21 due to the impact of the pandemic—after all, the number of cases being heard collapsed for several months—we put in place measures to support practitioners and are working to reduce the court backlog. We expect to have returned to an annual spend of more than £1.7 billion on legal aid by the end of the current financial year.

Legal aid services are delivered in England and Wales through solicitor firms; not-for-profit organisations, some of which we have heard about today, operating in Liverpool in particular; telephone operators; and barristers, most of whom are contracted by the Legal Aid Agency to do legal work. The LAA makes provision for legal aid services throughout England and Wales to ensure that individuals can access advice where they need it. It regularly monitors the provision of legal aid services in England and Wales. Where issues arise, it takes the necessary action to ensure that service provision reflects local need—for example, by merging duty schemes or conducting localised supplementary tender activity to ensure that appropriate provision is in place.

Before I turn to the wider actions we are taking on civil and criminal legal aid, I want to answer specific points raised in the debate. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Manchester, Gorton, for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) all referred to the courts’ backlog. Of course, that is incredibly important. I am the Minister responsible for court recovery. I understand the great anxiety out there. Cases have been taking a long time. We faced an extraordinary impact on the ability of courts to hear cases, particularly where there are juries in the criminal courts because of social distancing, but we are now recovering and are seeing a reduction in the backlog.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside spoke about funding for the backlog. We announced £477 million of additional funding in the spending review settlement primarily for Crown court recovery, which I think shows our commitment to addressing the backlog.

In light of the extra funding, what support is the Minister giving to make sure that throughout the system police officers, who prepare some of the files, are also recruited?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that. It gives me a chance to express how pleased I am with the recruitment of police officers. We are on target to achieve 20,000 extra police officers. In my county of Suffolk, we are going beyond the numbers that we expected, so it is very positive in terms of police recruitment.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. I appreciate that there are aspects of that Bill to do with judicial review and so on that are not directly backlog issues—they are more principles of law, particularly public law—but there are important measures in the Bill that will help us to deal with the backlog, not least the measures that will see more cases moving from the Crown court to the magistrates court. That will have a significant impact, freeing up potentially 2,000 days in the Crown court where we can hear cases—those serious indictable offences of murder and rape that we have heard about—so it is a very important measure included in that Bill.

I have the greatest respect for colleagues, particularly in Merseyside, on the issue of Hillsborough. I understand: this was a trauma for the city. The hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Liverpool, Riverside and others have consistently argued for more action on that, and I understand where they are coming from. They speak with great passion; this was a terrible event. The IPA was mentioned, which is a very good point. We recognise the fundamental importance of placing the bereaved at the heart of any investigation that follows a large-scale disaster and ensuring that bereaved people are supported and given a voice throughout the processes that follow.

Following a 2018 consultation on the establishment of an independent public advocate function, we are carefully considering a way forward. We note the Public Advocate Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), which is an important contribution to the debate, along with Bishop James Jones’s report on the Hillsborough families’ experiences, to which we will respond soon. In terms of timing—the hon. Member for Birkenhead knows this is primarily a Home Office responsibility—the Government remain committed to responding to Bishop Jones’s report. We have worked closely across Government and with key stakeholders to carefully consider Bishop Jones’s points of learning, and we will publish a response in due course. I am sorry that I cannot say more than that at this moment.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton spoke about a moving constituency case. He hit the nail on the head—this is about our constituents, their experience of the legal system and their access to it. To turn specifically to civil legal aid sustainability and the steps we are taking, I emphasise that we are in the middle of lots of engagement on criminal legal aid, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He has been a part of that. We are also continuing to engage with representative bodies and providers of civil legal aid to increase our understanding of the system. We are considering civil legal aid broadly, looking at a range of factors, from the current remuneration rates to the pipeline into a career in legal aid, as well as the ability of providers to offer legal aid services into the future.

I want to mention some specific points on housing, because I recognise that is a particularly important point in the constituencies represented in this afternoon’s debate. As part of our work considering civil legal aid sustainability, we have recently consulted on proposed changes to the housing possession court duty scheme—the HPCDS—to ensure the sustainability of the service and ensure that it meets the needs of the people using it. The HPCDS offers vital emergency, face-to-face advice and advocacy to anyone who is at risk of losing their home. The consultation proposals would amount to a more than £7 million investment in this vital service.

The key changes would remodel the delivery of the HPCDS to become a new housing loss prevention service, incorporating both the existing service of advice and representation at court and the early legal advice before court; expand the scope of legal aid so that providers of the scheme can offer early legal advice on social law matters to individuals facing possession proceedings; contract for individual courts rather than larger geographical areas; and allow providers to claim for the court duty fee in addition to a legal help fee for follow-on work, which is important for remuneration. Finally, the changes would introduce a set attendance fee for all schemes that is double the existing nil session payment. That is also important for renumeration. Officials at the Ministry of Justice are currently reviewing the responses to the HPCDS consultation and the Government intend to publish their response shortly.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles made a point about our early legal advice pilot. I am glad that she welcomed it, although with some caveats, it is fair to say. We are due to commence such a pilot later this year and I am bringing forward the statutory instrument on Thursday. The pilot is being funded with £5 million from Her Majesty’s Treasury’s shared outcomes fund. One of the areas selected for the pilot is Manchester, I am pleased to say. Participants will receive comprehensive legally aided advice covering housing, debt, and welfare benefits.

The early legal advice pilot signifies an important step in delivering a key commitment made in the Ministry of Justice’s legal support action plan, which was published in 2019. The pilot is intended to test whether early legal advice leads to early problem resolution and saves money in the long run. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, “We all know that already”, but, unfortunately, when we go to the Treasury, we need definitive evidence. The pilot will hopefully help in that regard. We intend to use the findings of the pilot to inform future policies relating to legal aid services for social welfare law matters.

To be eligible for the pilot scheme, individuals will live, or be habitually resident, in the areas of Manchester City Council or Middlesbrough Council. Manchester and Middlesbrough were identified as areas with potentially high levels of legal need, and it was felt that the people living within these areas would be most likely to benefit from early legal advice. Our decision was further supported by the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which informed our preference for the pilot to take place in the north-west and north-east. The early legal advice pilot scheme is part of our wider ambition to test what works and for whom, so we can ensure that legal aid is available for those who genuinely need it.

We are reaching the end of a review of the legal aid means test and will publish a consultation shortly. The review has been assessing the effectiveness with which the means test protects access to justice. This includes reviewing the income and capital thresholds, the passporting provisions for people receiving certain benefits, and the level of contributions applicants are required to pay towards their legal costs. We have already made changes ahead of publication of the review. In December 2020, we removed the £100,000 cap on the amount of any secured debt that may be disregarded when assessing the value of an interest in a property.

The rule change will benefit a significant number of applicants for civil legal aid, including survivors of domestic abuse, with many more eligible for legal representation in family proceedings. Last month we removed the means test for legal representation at inquests, available through the exceptional case funding scheme, and for legal help at an inquest for which representation is granted in order to ease the burden on bereaved families at such a difficult time.

As hon. Members know, we have just completed a wide-ranging review of the long-term sustainability of the criminal legal aid market. In light of early findings, in September 2020 we injected up to £51 million per annum into the criminal legal aid system through payments for reviewing unused material, sending cases to the Crown Court and increasing funding for cracked trials and paper-heavy cases.

In December 2020 we launched the second phase, an independent review led by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, to consider the sustainability of the criminal legal aid system in its entirety. The criminal legal aid independent review—CLAIR—was published on 15 December 2021. Sir Christopher has undertaken a whole-system review of criminal legal aid provision in England and Wales and has considered a vast amount of evidence from a wide range of sources. We recognise the importance of remuneration in delivering the long-term sustainability of the market and are considering Sir Christopher’s recommendations very carefully. Given the detail covered by Sir Christopher, it is right that it receives full and thorough consideration. We aim to publish the Government’s response no later than the end of March 2022, alongside a consultation on our related policy proposals.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton made the point that many people want that timescale to be accelerated. I understand that. In all the engagement I have held with the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association, individual practitioners and other groups that represent practitioners, I have expressed my understanding about where they are coming from in wanting urgent action. We all see that. However, I do not think anyone disputes it is a wide-ranging review covering the criminal justice system in the round, and we cannot rush that. More importantly, we, as a Government, have to abide by public law principles and to be careful that any consultation does not risk being unlawful by not giving everyone adequate time to contribute. I would stress that point particularly.

On the specifics of legal aid provision in the north-west, let me give some numbers. In the north-west, including Merseyside, there are 231 criminal legal aid provider offices, with 166 provider firms, and 337 civil legal aid provider offices, with 213 provider firms. The LLA remains confident there is enough provision of services in the north-west for criminal justice, but, as I said earlier, where issues arise the LLA takes the necessary action to ensure appropriate legal aid provision is in place. For example, the LLA launched a tender in December 2021 in 10 areas, three of which are in the north-west—Cheshire, Trafford and Wigan—for new housing possession court duty contract holders. The outcome of the tender is yet to be finalised and the results will be published in due course.

While legal aid is central to access to justice, it is part of a much broader picture. Since launching our legal support action plan in 2019, we have been exploring several changes across the full breadth of legal support, focusing on what works for the people who need it. The Government are passionate about the importance of giving people access to the right support to enable them to resolve legal problems earlier.

One such example is the £3.1 million litigants in person grant, which was launched in April 2020. The grant is funding 11 projects across England and Wales that deliver advice on a national, regional and local scale to litigants in person at different stages of their problem, within several areas of civil and family law. Through the legal support for litigants in person grant, local services in Greater Manchester and north Lancashire are delivering an integrated regional advice and information network that services the needs of litigants in person from two community hubs, one in each county. These hubs support people across a broad range of areas including employment, family, immigration, housing, debt and welfare benefits. Linked to that is the importance of law centres, which were mentioned by several hon. Members. They will know that during the pandemic we made available £140,000 for the Greater Manchester Law Centre and £120,000 for the Merseyside Law Centre, as well as £60,000 in 2020 and £36,000 in 2021 for the Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre, and £80,000 for the Equality and Employment Law Centre in Liverpool

Additionally, we are working to improve signposting services to enable early access to legal support. Last year, in collaboration with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we launched an online guided pathway pilot to help people living in rented accommodation.

The Minister has put a lot of information on the record. I know that the law centres will be following the debate closely. Will he go back to the civil legal aid fees that are paid? They have been frozen for 20 years and eroded by inflation. When do the Government intend to take a decision on them? Will there be a full review of the civil legal aid market and its future financial sustainability?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I said earlier—it is important to stress—we are conducting a means test review. That is key to civil legal aid. We will announce our response soon. I cannot say more than that, but it underlines that this in an important moment for legal aid. We are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system, whether civil or criminal.

Looking ahead to the future, 2022 will be a big year for legal aid, with the Government publishing our response to the criminal legal aid independent review and bringing forward new proposals on the means test review, as I mentioned in response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton. Alongside this, we will continue to focus on the sustainability of the civil legal aid system in all parts of the country, including the north-west.

I thank everyone for taking part in today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) outlined the terrible situation that the Hillsborough families found themselves in. She said they should have been free to grieve, but instead they were forced to fundraise for justice. That about sums up the sentiment of today’s debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) agreed that access to justice is a fundamental and basic right. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said the scale of the crisis is unprecedented. Indeed, that was a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) illustrated; he stated very clearly to the Minister that failure to act now risks collapse of the criminal justice system.

I welcome the comments made by the Minister, who genuinely sounds supportive of the legal aid system. He said he was committed to ensuring that people can get access to justice in a timely manner. However, that just is not happening—and it will only get significantly worse. The Minister mentioned the increase in annual spend and the spending review amount. I would say, in response to that, the amounts that were referred to in the spending review will not be sufficient to stem the crisis in civil and criminal legal aid. He mentioned the review of civil legal aid; that is welcome and I would like to see the details of it, and whether his Department is looking at the broad areas that legal aid should cover. That is certainly a huge issue in my constituency.

When the Minister was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton about increasing the rate of legal aid for the civil legal aid sector, he did not respond, and referred simply to the means test, which is a completely separate issue. That is not the rate of civil legal aid; that is what needs to be addressed as quickly as possible so that legal aid providers can exist, function and continue to provide legal aid to their communities. The Minister also mentioned the early legal advice pilot scheme. As I said earlier, I welcome it but it will not benefit my constituents in Salford—we are not covered by Manchester City Council. Perhaps he will clarify to me separately whether people in Salford, if they go to Greater Manchester Law Centre, for example, would be able to qualify for that scheme.

We know that early legal advice leads to early resolution. I understand that the Minister’s hands are tied by the Treasury and he is under pressure to create business cases to justify polices that his Department want to put forward, but, frankly, if we are in a situation where we have to make a business case for access to justice then we are on very shaky ground as a democracy. That is a point that the Minister made right at the start; he said that legal aid was a cornerstone of democracy. He agrees with me on that, and I welcome his comments. If he does believe that, he has to understand that no access to justice means no justice at all.

The Minister needs to address the points that I set out about increasing the amounts that are provided for criminal legal aid—the uplift to 15% as a minimum would be transformative. He needs significantly to increase the funding for civil legal aid and a wider review of civil legal aid is long overdue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of legal aid in the north-west.

Sitting suspended.