LASPO… what next?

The biggest step that the government took to reduce the legal aid spend was the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, which intended to cut legal aid in areas of law such as family, social welfare, housing, employment and more. Despite a large opposition, this Act came into force on 1st April 2013. The effects of LASPO have been devastating.

Just 8 days after LASPO came into force, the government’s consultation period on ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ began. The proposals were disastrous. They intended to cut legal aid drastically in both civil and criminal areas. Fortunately, some of these devastating proposals have been deserted for now, including the residence test which has been ruled “discriminatory and unlawful” by the High Court.

As recently as January 2015, the High Court held that the LASPO had taken into consideration restrictions on funding for domestic violence victims. Rights of Women (ROW) are an organisation who provide free legal advice to vulnerable women, they brought a Judicial Review, however, were unsuccessful.

Emma Scott, director of ROW, says: “This decision means that women who remain at risk of violence will continue to be denied access to vital legal advice and representation in family cases. Our most recent research shows that about 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid.”

The Minister for Courts and Legal Aid, Shailesh Vara said: “This government is exceptionally clear that victims of domestic violence should get legal aid wherever they need it to help break free from the abusive relationship. We welcome that this judgment recognises the measures we have put in place ensure a process that means they can still obtain this help. Since the reforms were introduced thousands of people have successfully applied for legal aid where domestic violence is involved.”

The areas of law which are being decimated are those areas which the vulnerable need the most. Clients can be extremely vulnerable, suffering mental health issues or victims of abuse. Lawyers currently working in the legal aid sector are not in it for the money, they are doing it out of compassion and dedication to the Rule of Law and justice for all. The average salary of, for example, a criminal legal aid solicitor is between £18,000 and £24,000.

There has been extensive campaigning, lobbying, and large opposition to any further cuts, by the legal profession, charities, pro bono units and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The campaign continues…

Last month, the High Court ruled against the Law Society, the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, and in favour of the Lord Chancellor. The Ministry of Justice propose to press ahead with the two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid, and to dramatically decrease the number of solicitors firms around the country that awarded a duty contract from 1,600 to just 527. The Court of Appeal granted leave to overturn the decision and the next hearing is due to take place on 10 March 2015.

I recently wrote an article for OurKingdom which set how the our Lord Chancellor, sworn to uphold the Rule of Law, hurtles down the road towards injustice for victims and defendants. (Full article here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gemma-blythe/defending-rule-of-law-against-uk-government%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98slash-and-burn%E2%80%99)

For those interested in legal aid and want to hear what practitioners think the future holds, come along to celebrate Young Legal Aid Lawyer’s 10th Birthday in Kent. We are holding an event on 21st April 2015 at 6 p.m. in Canterbury (venue TBC). Join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/events/1547595445528711/ for updates. Speakers include Oliver Saxby QC, Karen Todner, Nick Fairweather and Louise Duckett.

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