Public Accounts Committee: Legal Aid

4 February 2015

Chairman of the Bar, Alistair MacDonald QC, has supported calls made by the Government spending watchdog to make sure that people who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid can still get access to justice.

Commenting on the Public Accounts Committee's (PAC) report, 'Implementing Reforms to Civil Legal Aid' he said:

"This report shows that cuts to civil legal aid came in too hard and too fast. The Legal Aid, Sentencing  and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) removed legal aid from hundreds of thousands of people who need it in one fell swoop but no effective plans were put in place to make sure it went to those who needed it most.

"The exceptional case funding scheme, in particular, is a real mess. This was designed to help between 5,000 and 7,000 people taken out of eligibility for legal aid, but of 1,520 applications only 69 have been funded. The forms are so complicated that most people need a lawyer to help fill them in, but they can't get one without legal aid. It is an absurd catch 22.

"We have already written to the Justice Select Committee recommending that LASPO be amended to provide exceptional case funding where it is in the interests of justice to do so."

 "Overall, the report reflects the Bar Council's concerns that the scale of the cuts made to legal aid, and the way they were introduced, abandoned the most vulnerable, created disorder in our courts, and damaged our legal advice services."

The report confirms that many of the fears raised by the Bar Council's research, 'LASPO: One Year On', continue to be realised, including:

  • The exceptional funding mechanism is not, and never has been, in any way effective

  • An increase in Litigants in Person (LIPs) who are often unable to represent themselves effectively, and who create delays and extra costs to the courts

  • The effect of cuts to the supply of early legal advice means problems escalate and create knock-on costs in terms of health and other public services, as well as to the individual, and

  • Use of mediation has collapsed despite expectations that it would increase.

The Bar Council supports many of the recommendations of the PAC report, including that the Ministry should:

  • Closely monitor the take-up of mediation and take action if it does not increase as had been originally envisaged

  • Establish a mechanism to ensure that those who remain eligible for legal aid know their entitlement

  • Simplify the exceptional case funding scheme so those without legal knowledge understand how to apply for it

  • Collect evidence on the impact of LIPs on the courts, and

  • Consider the impact of legal aid cuts on society at large.

Ends

Notes to editors

1. Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 and Press@BarCouncil.org.uk

2. The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales. It promotes:

  • The Bar's high quality specialist advocacy and advisory services

  • Fair access to justice for all

  • The highest standards of ethics, equality and diversity across the profession, and

  • The development of business opportunities for barristers at home and abroad.

3. The General Council of the Bar is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board