The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act was passed in 2012, despite resistance from legal professionals, social workers, parliamentary opposition parties and charities. The LASPO act abolished the Legal Services Commission, an executive non-departmental public body of the Ministry of Justice, replacing it with the Legal Aid Agency.
One of the primary reasons for such widespread protest against the act was that the removal of legal aid across so many sectors, especially family law, would negatively impact on access to justice for thousands of people. The LASPO act has directly removed support for approximately 120,000 people, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
In July 2014, Family Law Week reported that nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux experience problems finding specialist lawyers to represent clients in relationship breakdown cases. The additional time spent trying to obtain legal aid for their clients has frequently resulted in their situations deteriorating. This would have been less likely to occur had legal aid been more easily accessible.
A recent report by the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick revealed two knock-on effects of LASPO, which may not have immediately sprung to mind. The first being loss of expertise within Social Welfare Law, due to redundancy. The second being loss of specialist knowledge within other areas of law, seeing as social welfare experts frequently have other areas of expertise.
This report also indicated that the majority of the legal professionals surveyed would continue with their current legal aid cases until they reached their natural conclusion. However, the outlook for future clients was not positive; the number of clients would have to reduce, especially in areas such as children’s and relationship law.
Respondents to the report also expressed fears that individuals were not being referred to specialist advisors following the cuts, but were being encouraged to ‘help themselves’. This prevailing attitude was considered detrimental to the clients in that many of them were unable to use the telephone or online services, because they did not speak English well enough to do so.
Children were mentioned as being at particular risk following LASPO, as the withdrawal of legal aid from private family law meant that they could potentially lose contact with one of their parents, most likely fathers.
Divorce and separation service lawyersupportedmediation.com, estimated that fees for legal aid family law specialists would drop by £100 million compared to 2012/13. This is due to the Ministry of Justice reducing its spending on publicly-funded family justice cases.
The National Audit Office report on the implementation of legal aid reforms, released in November 2014, indicated that whilst the cost savings are on target, the predicted effects on people requiring legal aid are inaccurate. The Ministry predicted that families and individuals no longer eligible for legal aid would use mediation services instead of pursuing their cases via the courts. However, this was not the case; there were 17,246 fewer mediation assessments in 2013-14, a 56% decrease from 2012-13.
In addition to this, during the year following the changes, there has been a 30% increase in the number of family court cases where both parties represented themselves. An unforeseen issue related to this is the potential adverse effects on health and wellbeing of those litigants whose problems could previously have been resolved by legal aid-funded advice.
Some critics warned that the changes would result in a lower standard of service, with reduced aid meaning lower fees for experts. However, DNA Legal are committed to delivering the very highest standards in testing and client care. Does your client qualify for Legal Aid? Visit Legal Aid Checker for more information, or give us a call on 01373 751 131.