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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 7 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. The Statement is as follows:

“I should like to make a Statement to inform the House that we have concluded our post-implementation reviews of Parts 1 and 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—better known as LASPO—as well as the outcome of our inquests review. Earlier today I laid all three reviews for consideration by both Houses, alongside a new legal support action plan, which sets out how we will build on those findings.

After an extended period of expansion that resulted in an annual spend at the time of over £2 billion, the coalition Government brought in Part 1 of LASPO to make significant changes to the scope of, eligibility for, and fees paid under, legal aid. This was essential to bring spending under control and target limited resources available at the most vulnerable and highest-priority cases. The extent of the changes LASPO introduced meant that the Government committed to carrying out the comprehensive review I have published today.

Throughout a year-long process of extensive evidence-gathering and analysis, we have engaged with more than 100 different stakeholders, professionals, providers and, of course, many in this House and in the other place, drawing together a wealth of research and evidence to inform this detailed review. We have heard that the legal aid system has for too long focused solely on delivering publicly funded advice and representation, at the expense of understanding how we can help people find early resolutions and avoid court disputes. Legal aid is, and will remain, a core element of the support on offer, and last year the Government spent £1.6 billion on legal aid funding.

We want to move forward with a new vision, focusing on the individual and their needs—be that through legal aid or otherwise. We will provide a breadth of support that is tailored to people and increases our ability to intervene earlier and catch their problems sooner, before they escalate. We must deliver a system that enables people to receive the type of legal support that is right for them, at the right time.

I am therefore delighted to publish, alongside this review, our new legal support action plan. The action plan responds to the evidence heard and includes immediate action to ensure that vulnerable people, particularly children, can access legal aid when it is needed. We will launch a review of the legal aid means-testing framework, specifically focused on the thresholds and criteria in place for someone to qualify for legal aid. We will simplify the exceptional case funding scheme to ensure it works effectively. We will expand the scope of legal aid to include immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated migrant children, and to cover all special guardianship orders in private family law cases. And we will reinstate immediate access to face-to-face legal advice in discrimination, debt and special educational needs cases.

But we also need to collect further evidence on what works and at what stage. We will invest up to £5 million of funding to encourage and support providers to develop new and innovative services; double support for litigants in person to £3 million for the next two years; launch several support pilots that will test how effective legal support at an early stage can help people avoid the escalation of problems; and test and evaluate the benefits of early advice in an area of social welfare law. Elsewhere, I am also announcing today that we will continue to support dedicated criminal legal aid practitioners by completing a comprehensive evaluation of the criminal legal aid fee schemes and structures.

Separately, I want to make the House aware that I have published the Government’s review of the changes made by Part 2 of the LASPO Act. Part 2 introduced a number of changes recommended by Sir Rupert Jackson, aimed at reducing costs in civil litigation. The evidence gathered indicates that these objectives have been met. Fewer unmeritorious cases are being taken forward, and access to justice at proportionate cost is generally being met.

Lastly, today I have also published the outcome of a separate year-long review of the provision of legal aid for inquests. The review was commissioned in response to a number of key independent reports and their recommendations. The final report is the culmination of this thorough review, undertaken with senior coroners, the legal profession and other key stakeholders, as well as—most importantly—bereaved families themselves. It considers a number of specific concerns, and looks at where we can make further improvements, including improving guidance and advice and ensuring that the inquest process is more sympathetic to the needs of bereaved families, looking into further options for the funding of legal support at inquests where the state has state-funded representation, and working closely with other government departments.

The publications that I launch today mark not only the completion of hard work already undertaken, but the beginning of more to do to meet our challenges. I place on record my thanks to everyone who has contributed evidence and expertise to these three reviews. It is essential to me that this engagement continues and that we collect more evidence, exploring with our partners and stakeholders innovative ways to support people to access the justice system and placing early intervention firmly at the heart of legal support”.

I commend the Statement to the House.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. Sadly, I am not grateful for its content, which offers very little very late. The Government wasted two years investigating their own devastating cuts, perpetrated by the coalition Government on so many ordinary people in this country, for whom access to justice is no longer a reality. The review is a missed opportunity to restore legal support to people facing rogue landlords, debilitating family breakups and the Government’s hostile environment to not just migrants but poor people and people living on benefits.

There have been 99% cuts to benefits legal aid for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, which is completely unacceptable. The Statement’s accompanying documents include an action plan that is incredibly disappointing, in many cases offering just more reviews rather than the action that the term “action plan” would normally suggest. Legal aid has been slashed by hundreds of millions of pounds. Even the Government’s target of saving £410 million was exceeded by £200 million. Is that a record of which the Ministry of Justice can be proud?

On many occasions technology, as with the Northern Ireland border, is offered as a panacea to replace real lawyers offering people early advice and subsequent representation where necessary. That is what anyone would want when dealing with a difficult dispute in their life, and it should be available to everyone—rich or poor.

Cuts to public services and austerity are always political choices, but when the cuts are to the legal advice and representation at the heart of our rule of law, they become particularly ideological. All the exquisite legislation brought forward and scrutinised in your Lordships’ House remains a dead letter in a closed book without adequate legal aid. That is the situation in the United Kingdom—one of the wealthiest countries on earth—at this moment in the 21st century. To my mind, this is a national disgrace.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. That piece of Labour legislation, of which we are proud, was as important in the post-war settlement as healthcare or universal education. I am sad to say this because I think that matters concerning the rule of law should be cross-party and bipartisan, but I have come to the view that only a Labour Government will restore access to justice, advice and representation for all.

My Lords, after a delayed process that took an entire year, we now have the post-implementation review of LASPO. I will focus on legal aid.

Of its four stated objectives, the MoJ claims success in just one: significant savings have been made. Well, we know that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, the savings wildly exceeded what was expected. However, on each of the other three objectives—discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; targeting legal aid at those who need it most; and delivering better overall value for money for the taxpayer—the answer is an unimpressive “Don’t know”, dressed up in weasel words such as, “It is impossible to say with certainty”. I suspect that an independent review would have come to clearer conclusions.

The review identifies six themes echoing the experiences of all of us involved in the justice system. First, these changes in the scope of legal aid undermine value for money, particularly by preventing early intervention. Secondly, financial eligibility and operational requirements limit access to legal aid too harshly. Thirdly, the exceptional case funding scheme is not working well. Fourthly, legal aid fees are now so low that future provision by practitioners is at risk. Fifthly, increasing numbers of litigants in person increase costs and risk the perception of a two-tier justice system. Finally, advice deserts across our country threaten access to justice.

The legal support action plan seeks to address those issues, at least in part. I am more hopeful than the noble Baroness in saying that the action plan is welcome. Among the Government’s pledges, some of which were mentioned in the Statement, they promised to review eligibility requirements, increase public awareness of how to access legal aid, broaden the scope of legal aid in some immigration and family cases—that will not go nearly far enough—improve the exceptional case funding scheme, review criminal legal aid, widen access to the telephone gateway, increase support for litigants in person and examine complementary ways of providing legal support. Both those pledges and the others made must be kept and implemented soon. We will have further demands for improved support. We will hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

Can the Minister do two things today on this vital topic? Together, the four documents represent a massive report. Will he please use his influence to secure a debate, with adequate time and soon, on the reports and the action plan? Secondly, will he reassure us that where the promises in the action plan are not backed up by implementation dates—and some are—the MoJ will treat them with urgency?

Notwithstanding the warnings in the paper and in the Statement that all this cannot be delivered overnight and is the first step in the process, the rescue of our legal aid system and the improvement of our legal support system needs more urgency than was ever accorded to this review.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for their contributions. I am a little disappointed by the response of the noble Baroness. These reports have been welcomed in many quarters, although not universally and not without qualification. However, that is hardly a surprise because, let us be clear, this is a difficult and controversial area.

Let us look for a moment to the background. We had a financial crash in 2008. It is easy to say that austerity is a political choice but essentially it is not; austerity is a consequence. Furthermore, after that financial crash, which impacted right across our society, we had the party manifestos for the election in 2010. The Labour manifesto said explicitly that it would be necessary to address the cost of legal aid provision, and that was its intent—the cost was too high. That was recognised by other parties and indeed by the coalition Government themselves, who brought forward the LASPO Act to try to bring some degree of control over the ever-spiralling actual financial cost of legal aid. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, acknowledged this.

We not talking just about the immediate cost of legal aid but about the wider issue of access to justice and the means by which we can ensure that there is legal assistance as well as legal aid for all in our society, but particularly for the most vulnerable, who truly require it. That is why I am thankful that the noble Lord has welcomed the action plan which is designed to look not only at the provision of financial resources for legal advice and assistance but the manner in which we can deliver legal support for people at the right time and in the right place. To do that, we want to see the development of web-based products, for example. We want to see proper signposting and advice for people. Moreover, we want to encourage that sort of advice and signposting at an early stage because there is a belief that if we can do that, we can help resolve people’s issues before they develop into major and costly litigation. All of that is to be considered.

In addition, we are going to test the impact of early legal advice by promoting certain pilots, particularly in the area of social welfare law, to see what results can be secured. I note the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about the need for implementation at pace, and indeed we are committed to the implementation of all of these recommendations as soon as we can. For example, we will be looking at the financial levels for qualification for legal aid and we intend to bring that to a conclusion by summer 2020 so that these matters can be addressed as soon as possible.

There are areas where we face difficulties with regard to the provision of legal advice. The noble Lord referred to legal advice deserts. In fact, in the areas of housing and debt, we are generally well covered across England and Wales so far as advice is concerned, but I accept that there are still gaps which have to be filled by, for example, telephone advice, which is not the ideal. Indeed, one of the reasons we want to roll out the web-based access that I mentioned earlier is to address the demand for legal advice and assistance in rural areas and other areas outside urban centres where that is more readily to hand. That is certainly part of our proposed action plan,

On the assurances the noble Lord sought, he readily appreciates that it is not in my power to secure a debate in this House, but no doubt the usual channels will have heard his observations. I concur with his reference to the depth and breadth of these reports, and perhaps the need to look at them in more detail to figure out just where we are going forward and how quickly we should go forward on these issues. As I sought to reassure him earlier, we are concerned to ensure that there is implementation of these proposals as soon as it is possible to secure it.

My Lords, the Minister referred to early advice in the area of social welfare law. He will understand my interest in this area, given the review of advice and legal support in the area of social welfare law that I chaired. Could he tell us more about what is envisaged from the pilots in this area and perhaps say something about the Government’s thinking about public support for sustainable advice services generally?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. Looking more generally at advice and assistance, we want and propose to look at how we can engage with people at a very early stage, so that we can evaluate their legal problems—and, indeed, sometimes problems that are not entirely legal but that lead on to legal issues if not addressed quickly enough.

In the specific area of social welfare law, we will seek pilots that evaluate various technological solutions and look at the cost benefits of trying to approach matters in that way. I mentioned earlier the idea of web-based material and the development we have seen in digital access to legal advice. For example, we have already instituted such digital access in the areas of uncontested divorce and debt, so that people can, without the need for legal advice, be guided through what should be a relatively straightforward process for the resolution of certain legal issues.

My Lords, in thanking my noble and learned friend the Minister for repeating the Lord Chancellor’s Statement, I declare an interest as a member of the private Bar, albeit I do not do any legal aid work.

The Minister said he was disappointed by the reaction of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord to the Lord Chancellor’s Statement. I was the Opposition spokesman in the Lord Chancellor’s Department from 1997 to 1998, and then variously shadow Attorney-General throughout the Blair and Brown Governments. I can assure my noble and learned friend that I made exactly the same sort of speeches as the two opposition Peers made just now. This is a continuing and almost intractable problem, and it is of course a question of judgment and priorities when resources are scarce. But there is much to commend in what my noble and learned friend has said, albeit I would like to see plenty more done.

I welcome the £3 million support for litigants in person. However, it is fair to say—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks—that the increasing presence in our courts of litigants in person not only makes our court system more sclerotic but feeds into the lessening of morale in the judiciary. Although not immediately germane to the post-implementation review, that is a factor that needs to be thought of within and outside its scope.

Finally, and most gently, I urge my noble and learned friend to see whether the Secretary of State and the Treasury can do something more—I know they have been doing some things—to assist in the funding of the criminal legal aid system. If there is one aspect of the criminal justice system that most worries me, it is the underremuneration of criminal legal aid lawyers, both solicitors and barristers.

I daresay that many will say, “Here’s one fat lawyer seeking to protect other fat lawyers”, but it really is not like that. I urge my noble and learned friend to do what he can to enhance the remuneration of legal aid lawyers in the criminal justice system. They have taken a pay cut of 10% or 20% over the last few years. Until that is recovered, our criminal justice system will be much hampered and hindered.

My Lords, we recognise the importance of a viable, properly trained and effective criminal Bar in order to maintain suitable access to justice for all. That is demanding in the present circumstances. Quite recently, as my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier will know, we have increased the level of fees for criminal justice work. That was done in discussion with the Bar Council in order that it could be suitably targeted to the areas where it was most needed. But I will not suggest that no more needs to be done. I quite understand the observations made about the need to maintain a viable, effective criminal Bar in that respect.

We are conscious of the issue of litigants in person, particularly of the need to avoid the simple matter of cost transferring: in other words, you relieve one area of costs by reducing legal aid provision only to find that you increase costs elsewhere because of the demands on the court system and the judiciary, because with an increasing number of litigants in person, we may find that court hearings take longer and are more demanding. We are conscious of that when looking at this overall. I reiterate that legal aid provision as such is only one aspect of a wider ecosystem that is designed to ensure access to justice.

My Lords, it is not so long ago in history that Mr Nabarro claimed to the nation, after a rather sensational motoring case, that British justice was unequalled in the world so long as you could afford to pay for it. We have come a long way since then, or we had. We can summarise the exchanges that have already taken place by saying that the quality of justice is essentially related to access to justice. Therefore, the priority for all Governments must be ensuring that access is equal and it is not just the administration endeavouring to be equal.

There has been reference to criminal law, and I am very glad that the noble and learned Lord opposite made the point about the dedicated work done in this sphere by insufficiently recognised lawyers. We also ought to bear in mind the tremendous amount of work done in this area by voluntary organisations and the rest, which strive to cover the gaps that are there. We should not have this exchange without recognising that work—by people who are really dedicated to the cause of equality in justice. It is rather important that we get this right as urgently as possible, at a time when we are parading around the world the concept that we cannot possibly operate with the European Court of Justice because our entire system is so perfect. I do not see our system as perfect at all while this problem remains.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his observations. I certainly acknowledge the point he made about the contribution of the voluntary sector in this area. Citizens Advice and other bodies make a very material contribution and we seek to support them in that endeavour. In addition, we are expanding the funding available for advice to litigants in person. Again, I hope that that will help some of the more vulnerable.

The design of legal aid is to ensure that it is targeted at the most vulnerable in our society. That is essential. Indeed, very often we hear complaints not from the most vulnerable but from those who would be perceived to have a relatively comfortable income who find that they are called upon to make payment in respect of legal support—legal defence in some circumstances—where 10 or 20 years ago that would not have been the case. I refer in that context to, for example, the recovery of defence costs in the context of criminal trials, which are now the subject of limitations that did not exist many years ago. The intent here is to target legal advice, legal assistance and legal cost at the most vulnerable in our society. We have sought to expand that by improving access to legal aid, and by seeking to improve the exceptional case funding system and to simplify it for parties seeking to use it.

House adjourned at 2.35 pm.