By Sammie Jones-
The British government has today published its response to concerns voiced by MPs’ about the ‘damaging’ effects of legal aid reforms on human rights.In July, a committee of Mps highlighted concerns about the effects of the Legal Aid in its Enforcing Human Rights Report Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which is currently being reviewed by the government. The committee, chaired by former solicitor Harriet Harman MP, found that the impact of LASPO on access to civil legal aid has been ‘dramatic’ since it came into force in 2013. They concluded that the situation now facing firms conducting criminal legal aid work is ‘severe’.
Many litigants and defendants who feel they have a legitimate issue to take to court have been unable to do so because of the high costs of hiring a lawyer. Cost associated reasons have meant many individuals end up loosing cases they may have won, simply because of lack of funds. The British government were told to consider widening the financial eligibility criteria to a larger segment of the population.
In reponse the ministry says means testing is a ‘vital mechanism’ to protect legal aid for those who need it most while ensuring those who are able to contribute do: ‘The post-implementation review will be making an assessment of the impact of applying the capital eligibility test to all legal aid applicants. It is important that we do not prejudice the outcome by speculating on possible changes at this point.’
The government’s exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme was officially down as set to support up to 7,000 cases per year but was exposed by the committee to only funds hundreds. The ministry says the number of people granted funding has risen over the years.
A statement by the Ministry Of Justice read: ”We are constantly improving our training and guidance to ensure that people are able to effectively access legal aid via the ECF Scheme. Alongside this work to support applicants, the post-implementation review will be assessing the extent to which the introduction of the ECF system has achieved its implementation objectives.”
Faith in the the fairness of the British legal system has been falling among those who feel they are sidelined because of the high costs of achieving justice in demanding cases. The British government is due to conduct a review with regards to the accessibility and cost effectiveness of available advice to hard up defendants or litigants. The reality is that for most defendants or litigants, unless your bank account is in good enough condition to fight a case, you may just have to accept defeat by those who can hire the best lawyers in town. Legal aid cannot be expected to apply to every single case or every person; they are means tested, and should be fairly distributed. The main problem is where a worthy case cannot be fought because of financial hardship, justice may not be done. The current system of legal aid can be extended to cater for more needy people, even if this means giving priority to certain cases using a fair and reasonable criteria.
Statistics provided by the Ministry of justice revealed that of the 746 applications received by the Legal Aid Agency between January and March this year, 390 were granted. This means 356 were declined, and we are not told the grounds on which they were declined, perhaps it will be too much information. At least the Ministry of Justice says it is taking the matter seriously and will be looking at it more closely. So will we.