The government has announced a review of its controversial cuts to legal aid.
Lord chancellor David Lidington said in a written statement that the review would be led by government and would conclude before parliament breaks for the summer in 2018.
BuzzFeed News has written a series of articles about the devastating impact the cuts have made since they were passed into law by the coalition government in 2012 through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo).
Lidington said the review, which the Law Society described as "long-awaited", would include an examination of:
* Changes made to the scope of legal aid for family, civil and criminal cases.
* Changes made to fees for legal aid work.
* Procedural changes the Act made, including the introduction of the mandatory telephone gateway and the introduction of evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
* Changes to the rules on financial eligibility, including the application of the capital eligibility test to all legal aid applicants, increasing income contributions for those eligible to contribute, and capping the subject matter of dispute disregard.
* Changes to the application of the merits test.
* The abolition of the Legal Services Commission and its replacement with the Legal Aid Agency.
Announcing the review, Lidington said: "Our legal aid system is a fundamental pillar of access to justice, accounting for more than a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget."
He continued: "The reforms within the Act were founded on delivering better value for money for taxpayers by reducing the cost of the scheme and discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation, while ensuring that legal aid continues to be available for the highest priority cases, for example where life or liberty is at stake, where someone faces the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases, or where their children may be taken into care.”
Responding to the announcement, Law Society President Joe Egan said: “This act meant hundreds of thousands of people eligible for legal aid on 31 March 2013 became ineligible the very next day. Even those in England and Wales whom parliament vowed at the time of LASPO should be able to access legal help are unable to get the advice and representation they need.”
Egan added: “This post-implementation appraisal by government is long-awaited and needs to be comprehensive. We look forward to contributing to this vitally important review. If people cannot access advice or protect their rights, then effectively those rights do not exist.”
Labour MP Karen Buck, chair of the all party parliamentary group on legal aid, told BuzzFeed News: "At last we have the long awaited review of LASPO, but the key question is: will the government listen to what is obvious to everyone else? The cuts to Legal Aid have gone too far, over-shooting even the planned level of savings, and these have contributed to a a denial of justice, the loss of skilled Legal Aid lawyers and the creation of 'advice deserts' in parts of the country.
"We don't need to wait until next summer. The govt can act immediately to relieve the pressure on the desperately over-stretched legal aid Sector."
Chair of the Bar Andrew Landon QC said the review offered the government "an important opportunity to take stock of the damage caused by the unprecedented cuts to legal aid that LASPO introduced and to reassess the value of justice to citizens."
Langdon added: "This review comes not a moment too soon; society has become increasingly aware of the importance of access to justice in underpinning the rule of law and our democratic constitutional arrangements."
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: "This is a long overdue review which is very much needed. But, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered. For example, what will the consultation process look like? And, will the Government publish the findings of the review in full?
“LASPO has proved to be incredibly controversial so this process must be both thorough and gain the confidence of all the stakeholders involved. Anything less would be a betrayal."
The Ministry of Justice said it would be seeking the views of interested parties, and would be writing to organisations and individuals to invite them to make submissions.
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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