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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have commenced a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012; and, if so, when they anticipate that the review will be published.

My Lords, the coalition Government promised to review Parts 1 and 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within three to five years of its implementation. We remain committed to undertaking that review. The precise timing is under consideration and we will announce our intentions in due course.

My Lords, it is four and a half years since Royal Assent, so it is a little disappointing that the Government have not yet decided when to carry out their promise. I had prepared a response, rather anticipating the Answer that the noble and learned Lord gave. However, today I was telephoned by a young woman in great distress because she is in the middle of a custody case involving her child by someone who is legally represented. There is no case here for legal aid to be granted under the present regime because there is no violence or any suggestion of child abuse. I tried to put her in touch with people who might help. This exemplifies some of the real problems that have arisen as a result of the narrowing of the field in which legal aid applies. Will the noble and learned Lord confirm that the Government will be open to reviewing such areas where legal aid has been withdrawn and will not be adamant about refusing to extend it to cases such as this?

I remind the noble Lord of a Written Answer by my noble friend Lord Faulks some time ago in which he pointed out that the review of LASPO would take place between April 2016 and April 2018, and towards the end of that period. With regard to the case which the noble Lord highlighted, of course I cannot comment on an individual case. However, I would observe that, prior to LASPO coming into force, almost two-thirds of family cases already had at least one unrepresented litigant. Therefore, there has not been a sudden introduction of unrepresented litigants in the context of family courts and family cases since LASPO came into force. However, clearly, when it comes to a review of LASPO, particularly Part 1, we will take into consideration the sort of case that the noble Lord raised.

My Lords, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Equality and Human Rights Commission recommended that the review of the impact of LASPO on children should be expedited. Can the noble and learned Lord say what the Government’s response is to these important recommendations?

A number of parties have raised the question of review of the impact of LASPO. The government position remains, as I outlined earlier, that we will carry out the appropriate review by April 2018.

My Lords, the provisions for legal aid for domestic violence victims and exceptional case funding were intended to ensure protection for such victims and a safety net for deserving cases outside the scope of legal aid. Does the noble and learned Lord share my regret that difficulties in access to legal aid in these areas have led to disappointingly low take-up, and does he agree that this highlights the urgency of the need for the promised review?

The Government acted quickly to change the evidence arrangements in respect of domestic violence cases following a decision in February of this year, and the take-up on these cases has increased by about 30% since that time. With regard to exceptional case funding, again the number of applications and grants has increased markedly in the past year and indeed, according to the data available for the last quarter of 2015-16, the number of grants in respect of exceptional case funding has increased by 32%.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, whereas in the past most of the litigants in person in the cases I tried over many years were men, who chose not to have legal aid, now they are both parties? Therefore, neither party has legal aid and the judge has no knowledge of what is the issue between them that can be properly litigated for the best interests of the child. This is a serious matter, which also leads to enormous delays and overuse of Cafcass.

With particular reference to proceedings concerning children, I point out that legal aid remains available where most needed. Indeed, legal aid was provided for in over 54,000 proceedings last year under the special Children Act.

Does the Minister accept that what is happening in regard to legal aid is damaging the reputation of our justice system and that judges up and down the country are finding it difficult to administer justice? One interpretation of the way the vote on Brexit took place is that it indicated that the public are very concerned about British justice; will that factor be taken into account in determining when the review that has been promised takes place?

We retain full confidence in the British judicial system, which is a world leader without any question of doubt. As regards the provision of legal aid, of course it is important, but it remains available where it is most needed, having regard to the financial demands that fall upon the country in more areas than just legal aid.