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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012: Part 1

Volume 747: debated on Monday 8 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the not-for-profit sector of the first three months of implementation of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

My Lords, post-legislative scrutiny of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will take place, as is normal, three to five years after Royal Assent. However, the Ministry of Justice will carry out a variety of exercises to monitor the impact of the Act from now on.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. However, does the evidence available not point clearly to a world where not-for-profit organisations will be decimated, and their clients—often the poor, disadvantaged and sometimes disabled—will no longer have access to legal advice? Just look at what is happening already. Birmingham Law Centre is closing, the well renowned Mary Ward Centre in London, which had 800 welfare benefit cases last year, has precisely nought at the moment, and Coventry Law Centre—I declare my interest as patron of that organisation, which has a superb reputation—has had to turn away from reception at least 350 people who had housing, immigration, debt, employment and family legal issues. I put it to the Minister that this is not good enough for a country that, until this legislation, could pride itself that its legal system tried to be fair to everyone. What are the Government going to do about it?

My Lords, the Act has been in force for 99 days. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of what is happening in this sector because of a surge of applications before 1 April. However, as I said, the department is carrying out a variety of checks and researches on the impact and we will keep a careful study of what happens.

My Lords, can my noble friend say at this stage how far organisations such as Citizens Advice appear to be coping with the changes? In particular, what, if anything, are the Government doing to assist Citizens Advice and others in the sector to introduce new methods of working to help them provide their services where legal aid is not available?

My Lords, I think we have had these figures before, but since 2010 the Government have provided around £160 million to support the not-for-profit sector, £107 million for the transition fund administered by the Cabinet Office and £20 million via the advice services fund 2011. In 2010-11, the income of the national citizens advice organisation was £62.3 million, with one of its largest grants being £18.9 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, Citizens Advice is also getting contracts under the new Legal Aid Agency civil contracts; 35 such contracts were granted to citizens advice bureaux.

My Lords, is the Minister able to help us on this despite the fact that the post-legislative scrutiny has not taken place? In addition to the places that my noble friend Lord Bach referred to, the Fulham Legal Advice Centre closed last month, I understand as a result of losing the money which used to come from those areas of work that have been taken out of scope under LASPO. Half the caseworkers in the Surrey Law Centre, which I believe serves the Lord Chancellor’s own constituency, are being made redundant through lack of funds. I declare an interest as chairman of the Access to Justice Foundation and president of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, both of which are involved in providing support to the not-for-profit sector in giving free legal advice. Can the Minister also confirm that these problems are happening against a background of increasing demand? There has been a 100% increase in inquiries to the LawWorks inquiry line and a 26.7% increase in inquiries to the Bar Pro Bono Unit. Will the Minister say what more the Government will do, rather than simply leaving it for three to five years to do a review?

On the contrary, I thought that I had made it clear in my Answer that we are not leaving it for three to five years. The intention is to monitor and review the impact of LASPO on all the affected groups outlined in the equality impact assessment. The Legal Aid Agency, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and providers will complement the use of administrative data with bespoke research exercises where appropriate. We have worked with the Legal Services Board and the Law Society to carry out a survey of providers of legal advice that will provide a baseline against which changes might be measured in the future. Ad hoc reviews are also conducted where a provider stops undertaking legal aid work.

I am not pretending that law centres have not been hit by this change. However, as I indicated in the previous answer, we have given a lot of money to the transition fund to help law centres and other not-for-profit sectors to reorganise so that they remain effective.

Is it not extraordinary that lawyers in the United Kingdom appear to think that around £220 million—the saving required—is a figure that should be brushed aside, and that after just three months there should be a review of the whole process? I urge the Minister to give a strong answer to the judiciary’s response to the consultation, particularly given that the response stated:

“Many young and talented lawyers are no longer choosing to practise in crime”,

which in the long term will affect the quality of the defence and prosecution barristers involved in criminal trials. Is it really the responsibility of the legal aid budget to fund that dimension of legal practice?

Welcome though my noble friend’s intervention was, he is treading on areas that we will be debating on Thursday, when we have a very full and interesting debate on legal aid. I will say, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, spent most of the last year predicting a perfect storm when LASPO came into effect. In fact, there has not been a perfect storm: the market is adjusting and advice is being given. However, the not-for-profit sector has had to make the adjustment that many others, including my own department, have had to make in the face of economic realities.