Cutting Corners: Discrimination failures due to legal aid cuts

July 10, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Legal aid cuts mean discrimination victims cannot get representation in court.

What does this mean?

A report by the equalities watchdog, the European Human Rights Commission, has found government cuts have caused discrimination cases to go unfunded. Few discrimination cases have been given legal aid; no work discrimination cases were given legal aid between 2013 and 2018 .Only 1 in 200 cases handled by discrimination specialists were awarded funding. A diminished threat of legal action weakens the deterrent for discrimination. This allows offenders to go unpunished. There are calls for more to be done as discrimination cases should not be a “David v Goliath” battle. Further criticisms target the Legal Aid Agency’s decision-making process, which focuses on monetary awards. This ignores the main aim in discrimination cases which is about challenging unacceptable behaviour. Their phone line for those seeking funding has also been problematic as many prefer a face to face meeting to discuss personal issues.

What's the big picture effect?

The unavailability of funding undoubtedly affects smaller law firms and their ability to deal with discrimination cases. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) reduced legal aid funding by ÂŁ950 million a year in real terms. Poor enforcement of rights is only one of the effects. This legislation withdrew aid from areas of law including family, welfare, housing and debt. It created legal deserts where no legal aid advice exists. Some law firms can no longer afford to provide these services as legal aid has become unprofitable.

Further, courts have seen a rise in litigants in person (people representing themselves). This is primarily due to the way people are classed when being assessed for legal aid. Some people earn too much to be eligible for legal aid but do not earn enough to hire their own solicitor. The EHRC’s report also found those below the poverty line were found not to be eligible for legal aid. It can be argued that an outcome like this surely defeats the very purpose of legal aid. The watchdog has called for the government to change the eligibility criteria, which has not been updated in years.

Despite this gloomy outlook, some efforts are being made to address the issue. Indeed the Ministry of Justice has said their Legal Aid Support Action Plan, published in February 2019, commits to addressing these complaints. Measures include reinstating face to face meetings and reviewing means testing. However, this has been criticised as a “drop in the ocean” of severe cuts. For now, it remains to be seen how effective this action plan will be.

Report written by Elizabeth Marshall

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