By Ashley Young-
The Law Society has welcomed a published report by the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid Inquiry into the Sustainability and Recovery of the Legal Aid Sector on the current state of the legal aid system.
The Law Society’s head of justice, Richard Miller, welcomed the “much-needed” and “thorough” report, but said: “We echo its damning verdict on the inadequate funding of our legal aid system and the detrimental impact of that on the ability of the most vulnerable in society to access justice”.
He said the Law Society strongly supported the call for a broader approach to enable clients to get help for a range of problems, “rather than individual issues being treated in isolation”.
Miller also welcomed the call for investment in the sector. He said: “The government must commit in the upcoming spending review to fund the legal aid system properly so that everyone – no matter their background – has access to legal aid when they are entitled to it.
“This, with measures to address the huge backlogs in civil and criminal courts, would begin to put the justice system on the long road to recovery”.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said: ‘We echo its damning verdict on the inadequate funding of our legal aid system and the detrimental impact of that on the ability of the most vulnerable in society to access justice. We strongly support the call for a more holistic service for clients that enables them to get help for their clusters of problems, rather than individual issues being treated in isolation from the rest.
We also welcome the bipartisan call for significant investment in the sector in order to address the crisis of sustainability.’
The Law Society last month sounded the alarm about the poor state of legal aid in the Uk , but insiders at the Ministry Of Justice told this publication the government invested £150m into legal aid last year.
”We are considering the full breadth of legal support, and last year we invested over £5 million for not-for-profit organisations providing legal advice, such as Law Centres”, an insider at the MOJ said.
”There is always more that can be done”.
This claim makes it a mystery why complaints of insufficient funding into legal aid is widespread, and why the report by the Westminster Commission fails to acknowledge the large injection of funding referred to by the MOJ.
The Ministry said ”there is always more that can be done”.
Miller said legal aid desert maps created by the Law Society “show British justice is at risk as publicly funded legal advice vanishes at a time when it is needed more than ever”.
He added: “Likewise, with a huge backlog of criminal cases to be heard and increased police numbers predicted to lead to more arrests, criminal defence lawyers are needed more than ever to provide access to justice but there are a diminishing number of criminal legal aid firms operating”.
Miller called for action “before it’s too late”.
Linda Ford, CEO of CILEX, echoed Miller’s comments. She said: “This inquiry echoes much of what many of us in the sector have been saying for some time. However, it is not just about diversity of providers at an individual level that is key, but also at a firm level”.
Ford said too many small to medium sized firms are “locked out” of legal aid contracts. She added: “For those that are able to secure these contracts, the rigidity in requirements imposed has threatened their cashflow and increased overheads. The system needs to open itself up to a wider range of smaller, more dynamic firms to improve its resilience and ability to adapt in meeting the needs of the public.
“It is encouraging to see included within the report findings, the role of court backlogs in worsening access to justice in legal aid. CILEX has long had a ready-made solution in CILEX lawyers, ready and able to help supply the justice system and help rebuild the pipeline of providers but who currently remain barred from roles such as that of Crown Prosecutor. We will continue to lobby the government on this issue.
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘Legal aid is a crucial part of our justice system which is why we are reviewing the means test and investing £51m into the criminal legal aid sector. We are determined to make the legal aid system fair and proportionate for all and will publish our findings from the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review before the end of the year.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
“Legal aid is a crucial part of our justice system which is why we are reviewing the means test and investing £51m into the criminal legal aid sector.
“We are determined to make the legal aid system fair and proportionate for all and will publish our findings from the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review before the end of the year.”
The MOJ said it continues to consider civil legal aid sustainability more widely but legal aid is one part of a much broader picture of legal support – we have invested £3.1m in support for litigants in person and secured and delivered an emergency investment of £5.4m in May 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic on advice sector organisations.
The MOJ recently invested £51m in criminal legal aid and the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review (CLAIR) remains a top priority for Ministers and continues to be delivered at pace. The government remains on track to publish the report together with its response to CLAIR before the end of 2021.
The government is ALSO carrying out a review of the means test for legal aid which will consider the experiences of victims.
Latest stats show there were over 94,000 applications for legal aid in Crown Court cases in the year to June 2021. Of these, more than 98% were granted.
Legal aid is central to access to justice, but the Ministry said it is only one part of a broader picture.
We are considering the full breadth of legal support, and last year we invested over £5 million for not-for-profit organisations providing legal advice, such as Law Centres.