Justice denied - impacts of the government’s reforms to legal aid and court services on access to justice

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This research aims to add to the existing body of evidence which has looked at the impacts of the government’s reforms to legal aid and court services and cuts to these budgets – on access to justice. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into effect in 2013 with the aim of cutting £220m from the legal aid budget per year by 2018–19. Between 2010–112 and 2015–16,3 the Ministry of Justice budget has been cut by £1.8bn, a decrease of 20 per cent.

LASPO removed a number of areas from the scope of civil legal aid and increased the threshold for eligibility (see Appendix 1). According to the Law Society, the high threshold in LASPO means threats to life, health and liberty, or breaches of rights under the European Convention on Human Rights – if assistance is not provided.4 This research is being carried out in the context of the increasing fragmentation and marketisation of justice services. No public interest case for such reforms has been made by the government, and neither has the evidence base underpinning them been available for public scrutiny. 

Justice Denied adds new and additional information through:

  • survey of staff working in the justice sector, particularly courts, legal advice and representation and probation 
  • interviews with representatives from organisations/coalitions who have expertise in the justice sector and who work with people accessing justice services 
  • submission of Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice 
  • analysis of statistics produced by the Legal Aid Agency

Interviews were carried out with representatives from: the Howard League for Penal Reform, Islington Law Centre, the Justice Alliance, the Law Society, Rights of Women, Simpson Millar LLP Solicitors and Women’s Aid. 

Findings indicate that the government’s reforms to legal aid have had a devastating impact on women’s access to justice. In particular, women who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing domestic violence are being put at greater risk, along with their children.

More widely, access to justice is also being denied to many in need of help, advice and representation in areas of civil law. This is ironic given the government’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 2015. Some of the key points raised by interviewees included:

  • Women and children are having unsafe contact with perpetrators of domestic violence. Legal aid cuts have meant that the ability to protect the child is more limited due to lack of access to representation.
  • Access to legal aid has to be front and centre of any government strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. 
  • The government’s reforms to legal aid have been devastating and denied justice to thousands of people, including some of the most vulnerable, in the civil area. 
  • Changes to legal aid have been focused on cuts and the higher threshold now means that there is limited means for people to enforce their rights.
  • Financial savings from reforms to prison law legal aid are tiny. But the human and social cost is huge and out of kilter with the rest of the government’s policy. 
  • Demand for justice services remains high, but meeting the needs of those who require help is now more challenging following government reforms and cuts to legal aid. 
  •  Court closures will have an enormous impact on justice around the country, as witnesses  may not be able to get to a local court now. 
  • There are few areas left in the scope of civil legal aid and fewer lawyers are taking on the work due to cuts in fees and their income. Undertaking legal aid work is no longer viable for some firms.

The survey of 141 members of staff revealed the following key findings:

  • Four in five respondents believe that the government’s reforms to legal aid have had a detrimental impact on access to justice.
  • According to 87 per cent of respondents, the increase in litigants in person has had a detrimental impact on the ability of family and civil courts to deliver justice fairly, effectively and efficiently.
  • The majority of respondents (90 per cent) viewed budget cuts to court services and the Crown Prosecution Service as being detrimental to the effective delivery of justice and this in turn was seen as diminishing access to justice.
  • Over two-thirds of respondents (67 per cent) believe that cases are taking longer in duration since LASPO came into effect.
  • More than half of those surveyed (56 per cent) believe that cases are taking longer to be listed and concluded since the reforms to legal aid came into effect.
  • Over two-thirds of respondents (71 per cent) stated that the previous round of court closures have had a negative impact on access to justice, the effective delivery of justice and on court users.
  • More than half of those surveyed (57 per cent) feel that their workloads have increased since 2010, and in many cases this was attributed to cuts to staffing combined with an increase in the volume in their work areas.
  • Changes to staffing and workloads over the last two to three years have resulted in, for example: the loss of experienced and permanent staff and an increase in the use of agency and temporary workers or staff on fixed-term contracts; an increase in stress, pressure and unpaid work; and an increase in errors, with quality of work affected.
  • With regards to IT in courts, over half of respondents (54 per cent) agreed that ‘IT sometimes works, but systems need improvement’ and a further 34 per cent agreed that ‘IT systems are unreliable which causes problems when cases are being heard’. Language used to describe IT systems included ‘ancient’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘incompatible’.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • The government should ensure that access to legal aid is based on need and enables people to enforce their human right to justice. 
  • The Ministry of Justice should carry out immediate and in-depth assessments of the impacts of budget cuts, LASPO and reforms to court services on access to justice. These should be done in collaboration with trade unions, other organisations with expertise in this field, those who use the justice system and other government departments. The assessments should include: 
    • the impacts on equalities, and whether LASPO enables the UK to meet its obligations under ratified international conventions 
    • the wider impacts on access to justice 
    • the wider costs to the public sector and knock-on costs of the reforms 
    • the impacts on court services and on the ability of the justice system to deliver justice fairly, effectively and efficiently. 
  • There should be a moratorium on further budget and staffing cuts in the justice sector until the above assessments have been carried out. 
  • There should be a pause on any further court closures until the government assesses the impacts of the last round of closures on access to justice, and on the potential impacts of the current round of closures. Technology should be developed in collaboration with staff and fully tested before being rolled out across court services. 
  • Justice services should be seen as interconnected and inter-dependent and based within the context of wider public services. Therefore any reforms should be viewed within a whole-system approach. The justice system should be recognised as a public service and a public good, and future government reforms should always take an evidence-based approach.

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