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Legal Aid in the headlines

Sophie Kearney

Legal Aid has been in the headlines in recent weeks, as we anticipate the long-awaited government review of LASPO 2012, several prominent MPs have now publicly called for the Legal Aid cuts of 2012 to be reversed.

The introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 overhauled the Legal Aid system. The reforms saw the Legal Aid eligibility requirements change, leaving many individuals unable to secure funding in family, crime, housing and immigration matters, to name a few.

The Guardian newspaper have reported that the cuts to Legal Aid have seen the number of people accessing funding fall by more than 80% since the introduction of LASPO in 2012. The devastation caused by the cuts to Legal Aid has been widely felt across the country, and has been particularly evident in the family Courts.

Notably, Legal Aid was withdrawn for the majority of private family law matters, meaning Legal Aid in issues of child contact and divorce is only given in limited circumstances.

Due to the strict means criteria, those with disposable income above £733 per month are not financially eligible for legal aid.

Those thresholds have been frozen since 2010, while the cost of living rises year by year. Research commissioned by the Law Society has shown that people 10 – 30% below the poverty line are being excluded from Legal Aid.

Inevitably the strict guidelines and cuts to Legal Aid have caused an influx of unrepresented individuals bringing proceedings and attending court without any legal guidance or representation. It has been estimated that at present, 80% of cases in the family court involve at least one unrepresented party. Not only is this immensely difficult for the unrepresented individual concerned, but it also places further strain the Court system, and on the voluntary advice sector.

The recent headlines have seen many stories of parents who have been unable to pursue contact with their children, and have sadly lost contact with their children, and they feel this is as a direct result of the lack of funding preventing them from accessing proper legal advice and representation in Court.

Several prominent MPs who had been at the forefront of the Legal Aid reforms in 2012 have stated that the cuts went too far, and in hindsight, they would not have voted for them. Most notably is the former Commons deputy speaker, Nigel Evans.

In 2014, Mr Evans spent his life savings on legal representation to defend himself against false allegations of sexual abuse. Mr Evans now feels the cuts were excessive and his experience has proven to him that the legal system desperately requires extra funding.

Will there be a change in legal aid?

The Ministry of Justice initially planned to conduct a review in to the effects of LASPO five years after it’s implementation. After that deadline passed, the Justice Secretary David Gauke pledged to publish the review by the end of 2018. They have this week confirmed that the report will not be ready until late 2020, but that they will share ‘emerging findings’ throughout the process.

Mr Evans and other MPs are now calling for reforms to Legal Aid funding. The former Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer has stated that the funding of Legal Aid should urgently be restored to pre-LASPO levels. This is something that several groups and legal professionals have been protesting for across the country for several years. It is hoped the recent increased media attention will have some impact on driving a much-needed change.

In my opinion, it is tragic that in one of the most developed countries in the world, we see access to justice being denied and parents unable to pursue a relationship with their children, as they struggle to navigate the legal system alone and they cannot afford to fund their cases. Often, when people find themselves to be in court, it is a time in their life that they are most in need of help and guidance, and sadly they are being failed. Things need to change.

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