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According to the latest government figures, half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales have shut down during over the last six years. The latest government figures identified in answers from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to parliamentary questions proposed by Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, show that the number of local areas offering law centres or agencies offering free legal services have fallen from 94 (2013–14) to only 47 (2019–20). As well as the drop in physical centres, the MoJ law centre funding through legal aid contracts dropped from £12.1m to £7.1m. Following these new figures, we question the implication of cuts to legal aid and what the future may hold for access to justice.
The BBC previously discovered that the depletion of legal aid provisions has inevitably created “legal aid deserts” and a “five-fold rise” in people having to represent themselves in court. Due to the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), aid has been redrawn from areas such as family, welfare, housing and debt.
The reduction of legal aid and access to justice has had many repercussions. In many cases LASPO has resulted in access to justice being harmed for some litigants, such as domestic abuse survivors (see: The cost of reducing access to legal aid), and those who have been discriminated against for reasons such as race, gender or disability—who’ve been left to represent themselves in court causing a “David vs Goliath” scenario (see The Independent). The Joint Committee on Human Rights Cuts noted that the cuts to legal aid have made “the enforcement of human rights ‘simply unaffordable’ for many people in the UK”.
One of the ways we at LexisNexis have joined the fight against the ever-decreasing access to justice, is by dedicating ourselves to working with the Civil Justice Council and the members of the free legal advice community. This need to deliver better access to justice is aligned with our central objective to advance the Rule of Law around the world.
At LexisNexis our work has been focused around the potential for technology and digitisation to produce efficiency and productivity benefits. In some instances, we have looked to develop individual tools that make complex processes more straightforward—by way of an example, we will shortly be piloting a digital version of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) form with a handful of partner clinics. In others, we have been able to provide access to our practical guidance content (LexisPSL) to enable those working on the front line to advise with confidence. As well as this, we have worked closely with the leaders across the sector to share our expertise on the strategy of how you can deliver a digital development journey to benefit as many as possible.
Despite the work of charities and corporations like LexisNexis, it’s clear that managing the cuts to legal aid is an ongoing process. February 2019 saw the government launch its first review into the impact of legal aid cuts, nearly six years after the introduction of LASPO. The review, which focused on LASPOS original four objectives: making significant savings; discouraging unnecessary litigation; targeting legal aid at those who need it most; and delivering better value for money, concluded that it has been “partially successful” in reaching those goals. However, there are clearly still issues around representation as identified above. With promises of proposals to “pilot and evaluate the expansion of legal aid to cover early advice in a specific area of social welfare law” by autumn 2019 and a “comprehensive review” of legal aid eligibility by summer 2020, it must be noted that jury is clearly still out on the future of legal aid.
For more on legal aid check out the related articles below!
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Hannah is one of the Future of Law blog’s digital and technical editors. She graduated from Northumbria University with a degree in History and Politics and previously freelanced for News UK, before working as a senior news editor for LexisNexis.
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