Politicians and lawyers have called on the government to carry out an urgent review of its cuts to legal aid to stop the “injustices happening every day” as people attempt to fight their cases without professional representation.
The calls follow revelations by BuzzFeed News about the rising number of people going into court alone and their experiences. Previously unreported figures from the Personal Support Unit showed a 520% increase since 2011 in people seeking help in court because they had no lawyer.
When the coalition government passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), it drastically cut the kinds of cases eligible for free lawyers. Built into the legislation was a promise to review its impact, which they pledged would take place within three to five years of its implementation in 2013.
Four and a half years later there is still no review – or even a timeline to begin one.
Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, said: “This review needs to happen urgently and there need to be substantial changes.
“You’ve got injustices happening every day at the moment because people can’t get the advice they need… We think this should have been addressed much sooner. Right from a year after [the changes came in], when the National Audit Office published a report highlighting serious concerns about the impact of the cuts.”
He added: “There are urgent problems that should’ve been addressed sooner. As a result of the legal aid cuts it’s far harder to get justice than it was before these cuts came in.”
Miller says the problem is not just the obvious changes to the kinds of cases eligible for legal aid, but also more hidden cuts, such as the fact that the income threshold to qualify for free legal help has not changed since 2010.
“Ever poorer people are finding they’re deemed too rich to get legal aid,” he said. “[The government] needs to make sure that the means testing keeps pace with the cost of living. As the moment it’s been frozen since 2010 which has impacted on hundreds of thousands of people.”
In a written question to parliament, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, Jonathan Marks QC, asked the government what assessment had been made of the impact of LASPO.
Lord Keen of Ellie replied: “The Lord Chancellor is currently considering the planned post-implementation review of recent legal aid reforms. An announcement will be made in due course.”
Marks told BuzzFeed News: “The government has long promised a review into legal aid, it is absolutely vital that they do not delay this any further when there are clear problems that need addressing.”
Speaking about the impact of changes to legal aid, he said: "One of the really unwelcome aspects of the legal aid cuts is that far too often now litigants are left to fend for themselves in court. That has a big impact on the quality of justice.
"Litigants in person inevitably cannot put their cases as well as lawyers can. Judges find themselves trying difficult cases without the help that lawyers give them. Cases take more time. The courts give a less good service. It is particularly bad in family cases, where far too often parties with strong personal differences have to face each other across a courtroom.”
Labour MP Karen Buck, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, said: “The damning evidence of the impact of the rise of litigants in person, and the recent Bach Commission report all pile on the pressure for the review of LASPO. To rub salt into the wound, we also now know that the savings are far higher than those planned or anticipated.
“Access to justice is a vital component of a decent society, protecting the most vulnerable and helping ensure that failings in the system are identified and redress obtained. The government has to listen and respond.”
The rise of people representing themselves in court has prompted concern from many senior figures in the legal world. While sharing the BuzzFeed News article on Twitter, retired judge Sir Henry Brooke pleaded with MPs to address the issue, “Charles Dickens cdn't have described it better. Please, please could our MPs go & watch these travesties of justice & resolve to stop them,” he wrote.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Since 2015, the Government has invested £5 million of funding to support litigants in person through a range of measures designed to provide additional information, support and guidance led by the advice, voluntary and pro bono sectors.
“Legal aid resources are focused on those who most need legal advice or help. We are implementing changes to make easier for victims of domestic violence to access the financial support needed for legal representation.
“We will announce details of the planned review of legal aid reforms in due course.”