What’s going on here?
Lawyers have stated that the pledges by the Ministry of Justice to increase legal aid spending by £6.5 million are a “drop in the ocean” compared to recent legal aid cuts.
What does this mean?
Legal aid is when assistance is provided to those otherwise unable to afford legal representation when accessing the court system. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 reduced legal aid expenditure per year by at least £350 million. This was part of the government’s policy of austerity, an attempt by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to save money following the financial crash. These cuts significantly affected the provision of legal aid. The recent promises to increase funding are being criticised as being too little too late, representing little more than 2% of the £350m cuts.
What’s the big picture effect?
Spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1 billion in 5 years, and by 2020 the Ministry of Justice will have seen some of the deepest budget cuts of any government department. Legal aid is generally regarded as essential for providing access to justice and ensuring equality before the law. The cuts leave many unable to access justice and have caused increasing cases of litigants in person (people representing themselves). This also raises issues of European Convention on Human Rights, as the right to a fair trial enshrined in Article 6 is arguably compromised.
The Ministry of Justice have recently reviewed LASPO. Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society (which represents solicitors in England and Wales) has welcomed parts of the Ministry’s review of legal aid. She highlighted the need to change legal aid means testing, exceptional case funding and early legal advice. However, Richard Atkins QC (the chair of the Bar Council representing barristers) said that the review was disappointing, offering “little of substance to ease the impact of LASPO on vulnerable individuals seeking justice”.
Overall, the review and increased spending promise has been met with lukewarm approval as the government seems to continue to fail to recognise legal aid’s need to improve.
Report written by Elizabeth C.
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