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Good news! Review of UK legal aid cuts finally announced

This week, we celebrated Justice Minister Oliver Heald QC finally announcing a timetable for the long-awaited review of the drastic cuts the coalition made to legal aid in 2013.

So far, so dry (and it was – it’s January).

But please, stay with me. Here’s the back story:

All too often, any conversation on legal aid tends to neglect the people it’s designed to protect, and comes back to the value of lawyers – which, in too many people’s view, is highly overrated.

The fat cat barrister in a pinstripe suit swilling claret in a Hogwarts-esque banqueting hall (or even pontificating in a wig and gown à la Harry Potter in a courtroom). The smooth-talking solicitor billing caviar lunches to their clients. Both of them laughing together in their Islington townhouses as they make simple problems into complex arguments only they can explain.

The reality of life as the average civil legal aid lawyer is a million miles from those images – more like stale court café sandwiches and cross-country train journeys which cost more than the fixed fee you’ll get for turning up to demonstrate why the Home Office have made a completely unsustainable decision on your unaccompanied child client’s immigration case.

But lawyer life apart, that really isn’t the point. And it isn’t why Amnesty cares about legal aid.

Cuts are affecting the clients

Legal aid is there to help people facing devastating problems. Problems which, since significant cuts to legal aid services in 2013, huge numbers of people have had to grapple with alone.

To achieve justice in a legal system which is ‘adversarial’ – based on each side having an equal chance to make their case – you really need the right support (even better, before your problems escalate to Court level). You need to understand how the process works, what the law says about your problem, and what evidence you need to gather if you want to properly present your case and enable the judge to make the right decision. You need lawyers.

Family breakdown. Housing problems. Welfare benefits messed up. And the perhaps less common cases: fighting to be reunited with children torn from you as the militia advanced, found in a distant refugee camp by the miracle of the Red Cross and community networks. Sorting out proper support when you’re leaving care and finding your feet as an independent adult. All of this and more is now, as a general rule, not eligible for legal aid funding.

That’s the direct result of the wholesale reversal of the way the legal aid works, the result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (‘LAPSO’) which came into force in 2013.

Until then, people whose situations merited it were generally entitled to legal aid funding to get the help they needed - with certain exceptions. Now it’s the other way round.

Last year, our report Cuts that Hurt charted the impact of the cuts on access to justice and protection of human rights. We looked in particular at vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including children and young people, people with mental health problems, people with disabilities and migrants - but the effects are much broader.

In a nutshell – it’s bad

Really, really bad. A lot of experts (stay! please!) said at the time of the cuts that the government hadn’t done nearly enough research into what the potential impact might be, and in fact the government didn’t try to didn’t pretend it had. It said at the time that cutting the budget was what mattered, and they would review later (with some ‘modernisation’ window dressing rhetoric). They promised that in the first five years, there would be a proper review that would look at the actual results of the cuts and work from there.

There is an ever-increasing and unanimous body of evidence that the cuts have had an incredibly damaging impact on access to justice, which is a human right in itself, and that the much hyped ‘exceptional case funding scheme’ – designed to act as a safety net if not getting legal aid would result in a human rights violation – doesn’t fix the situation.

The human cost looks very serious. We are being left with a two-tier justice system which is increasingly closed to those who can’t afford to pay.

So that’s why we’ve been calling on the government to stop prevaricating, and announce its long-promised review as a matter of urgency. It’s why we’ve given a cautious welcome to the important announcement that that process will soon begin. It’s not ideal, but it’s a win for all those campaigning for change.

This is just the (crucial) first step. The government announced that the review proper will start in May, with the government first sending a memo to parliament looking at existing reviews by others (like Amnesty) and deciding if they think the changes met their objectives. After that there will be a ‘much wider ranging, full post-implementation review’ that will be presented to Parliament by April 2018.

That’s a pretty ambitious timeline, and it’s late in the day. The next critical thing is to make sure that the scope of the review is sufficiently broad to capture the real effects, including the human rights impact, of the cuts and to gather evidence from the right people so that the reviewers reach accurate conclusions. We can’t have a whitewash, or a rushed job. So we need to focus right now on what the review will look like, and making sure that we’re scrutinising the scrutineers.

This is too serious. It’s all very well to have a Human Rights Act, good judges, good laws. But if ordinary people can’t access them, then that’s only half the job. The government needs to fix the mess it has created. The long-term human rights cost of failure is simply too high to contemplate.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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