Citizens Advice forewarns swingeing cuts to legal aid

Legal aid proposals put forward by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) late last month are set to limit access to justice for many people, according to charity Citizens Advice.

A consultation paper released on 22 July entitled ‘A New Focus for Civil Legal Aid’ proposes changes to legal aid funding that will restrict access to informed legal help for many people on low incomes. The future funding code, nominally aimed at “encouraging early resolution and discouraging unnecessary litigation”, looks set to result in new and massive restrictions on legal aid and access to the courts.

Citizens Advice social policy officer James Sandbach summarised the changes causing most concern. “The proposals will limit what’s available in regards to personal injury and clinical negligence out of legal aid and funding through conditional fund agreements,” he said.
“The current family legal aid scheme will be restructured, making it easier for the LSC to refuse funding for matrimonial disputes, while means-testing for legal representation will also change.”

The proposals will further restrict access to representation in courts and tribunals, and for property owners accessing legal aid there will be tighter tests applied for the types of cases that can be funded, as well as strict means-testing in criminal cases.

“The proposals are not massively surprising. People knew they were on the way, but no one knew the consultation document would be so extremely detailed and complex. In this case, the devil really is in the detail. The LSC are obviously trying to set and keep their own agenda since being taken over by the Department of Constitutional Affairs,” Sandbach commented.

Gerry Martin, vice-chair of the Law Centres Federation, agreed with the concerns raised by Citizens Advice. “The proposals will increase pressure on us and make life more difficult for people,” he insisted. “Legal aid is a basic public right; access to justice is a basic right of the welfare state and a vital public service.”

Since overall access to justice will be restricted, the question is just where people will be able to go for help. Sandbach suggested that people ineligible for legal aid could try conditional fee arrangements or other forms, such as the ombudsman. “Some lawyers offer pro bono work, but we find pro bono help is really a bit too few and far between,” he said. “Simply put, if people have serious legal problems, then it’s difficult to get help now.”

The Citizens Advice concerns came on the same day as the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee published its report on the draft Criminal Defence Service Bill. The report found that the Government’s proposals for means-testing within the criminal system are also too limited, while a recent Government internal review of the LSC highlighted significant failings.