Ten Years On From Funding Cuts To Legal Aid. Hello everyone, I hope you are well. In today’s post, I will be sharing a guest post from Amanda Hamilton, Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals. Amanda will be looking at the impact, 10 years on, of the removal of legal aid for most cases. In April 2013, The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force. This statute introduced funding cuts to legal aid, resulting in fewer individuals who are consumers of legal services being able to access advice and assistance, whether for debt or welfare issues, consumer issues and many more.
Ten Years On From Funding Cuts To Legal Aid
In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force. This statute introduced funding cuts to legal aid, resulting in fewer legal service consumers accessing advice and assistance.
The coalition government’s motivation behind introducing this was, amongst other reasons, to reduce government spending on legal funding. It also wanted to discourage unnecessary litigation and target only those consumers who are the most vulnerable.
However, ten years on, the fallout could be described as catastrophic, not least from an access to justice viewpoint but also in respect of the consequential knock-on effect on the court and justice system.
Before LASPO was introduced, a consumer of legal services could access funding for most types of legal disputes. There was always an element of ‘means testing’ and ‘merits’ of the case. Still, most consumers were potentially eligible to access legal aid to some extent or other, on the understanding that some, if not all, of the funding would be repaid over time.
Since LASPO, in civil cases, there is no access to legal aid for:
- Welfare Benefit Appeals
- Debts (Unless A Debtor Is Being Evicted From Their Home)
- Housing (Unless Someone Is Being Evicted, Is Homeless, There Is Serious Disrepair, Or Because Of Action By The Council As A Result Of Anti-Social Behaviour)
- Employment (Unless Discrimination)
- Private Family Law Issues (Unless There Is An Element Of Domestic Violence Or Child Abuse)
- Consumer Or Anything Related To Contract Law
- Clinical Negligence
- Claims In Negligence For Personal Injury
- Small Claims
- The Majority Of Cases Heard In Tribunals (Unless It’s A Mental Health Tribunal Or Immigration Appeal Tribunal)
Looking at this very long list, very few cases would be eligible for funding. While the exceptions may assist those that appear to be most vulnerable, where does that leave consumers who do not fall under that ‘vulnerable’ category?
What Are The Current Options For A Non-Vulnerable Consumer?
The fees of solicitors are generally outside the financial scope of most consumers. With hourly rates being charged anywhere between £250 – £ 600 plus an hour, these fees can only be affordable by those lucky enough to be in the country’s top one per cent of income earners. Barristers’ fees on a direct access basis are only slightly better, usually charged at between £200 – £400 per hour, but still outside the reach of most consumers.
Several pro-bono organisations and law centres can offer free legal advice and assistance. Still, quite often, apart from Citizens’ Advice, few consumers know where to look for such help. For example, a website called ‘Legal Choices imparts information about the different legal professionals and where to find assistance. Many Solicitors and Barristers also offer a percentage of their services pro-bono basis.
Therefore, a person who is, through no fault of their own, being sued by another has to defend themselves or (in some cases) their property and is forced either to pay the high fees that lawyers charge or cow-tow to their wealthy opponent’s demands. How can this be construed as fair?
Other possible alternatives for a consumer include a CFA (conditional fee arrangement) with a solicitor who may be willing to take on a case on a ‘no win, no fee basis, but even then, a solicitor has to be convinced that there is more than a 50% chance of winning the case. There is also ‘ATE’ (After the Event) Insurance which enables an individual to pursue a claim for personal injury and be assured that such an insurance policy offers financial protection should they have to pay their opponent’s and their legal costs.
Since LASPO, consumers have had to rely heavily on free assistance from either pro-bono organisations or individual legal professionals offering pro-bono work (the numbers of which have grown heavily over the last ten years). The latter significantly strains the profession and must become unsustainable in the long term.
If a consumer is forced to go to court, they can do so at minimal cost by representing themselves as a litigant in person (LIP). Statistics indicate that since LASPO was introduced, the number of LIPs has increased, and the percentage of consumers represented has decreased from 58% (in 2012/13) to 36% (in 2017/18).
The result of an increase in LIPs in civil cases means that the court has to spend more time ensuring that the correct information is imparted to a LIP so that they are not disadvantaged. There is also the ‘human rights aspect of being unable to afford representation against an opponent who can afford it. The knock-on effect is that court listings have been affected so severely that massive delays have become the norm rather than the exception.
LASPO has caused a massive gap in the accessibility of justice for most consumers. However, the growth of the Paralegal Sector means that this gap is being filled by Paralegal Professionals who can provide access to justice at a reasonable cost. Paralegals are trained and educated to perform legal tasks. If they are NALP Members, they can gain a Licence to Practise after fulfilling the requisite criteria, which means they can offer legal services to consumers as paralegal practitioners. The only proviso to the work they can offer consumers is not to step over the boundary by offering reserved activities. These are reserved only for solicitors and barristers, and details of such activities can be found online. Paralegal Practitioners may charge anywhere between £30-£80 per hour, which is more within the range of most peoples’ pockets.
Has The Reduction In Legal Funding Discouraged Unnecessary Litigation?
A 2018 report about the impact of LASPO found that the legislation has had the reverse effect of what it was supposed to have achieved by ‘preventing necessary litigation rather than discourage unnecessary litigation‘.
In response to the report on LASPO, the Chair of the Bar Council in 2018 said, ‘LASPO has not just failed, it has caused untold damage to our justice system and access to justice‘.
There lies the truth. And yet no changes have been made.
I hope you enjoyed that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.