Huge government reforms are stopping the effective delivery of justice
Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most.
This sentence isn’t an exaggeration, placed at the beginning of this post just to get your attention. It is in fact a direct quote from Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, aka the head of our judiciary and president of our courts.
A new report launched today, “Justice Denied” looks at the government’s reforms to legal aid and court services and the impact of these on access to justice. The report includes the voices of experts and staff across the justice sector and at the shrinking availability of justice for those without financial means.
The findings show that the government’s reforms have had a devastating impact on women and children’s access to justice, and for those needing advice and representation in areas of civil law such as debt, housing and immigration.
Repeated concerns were raised by experts and staff about the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Offenders Act (LASPO) in 2013 as being, amongst other things, a serious barrier for survivors of domestic violence in accessing justice. On average, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime and, on average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before they report it to the police – if they report it at all. And yet, between 2011/12 and 2015/16, the number of domestic violence applications for legal aid fell by 16%. 87% of staff surveyed said that the increase in litigants in person has had a harmful impact on the ability of family and civil courts to deliver justice fairly, effectively and efficiently – our current courts system isn’t designed for this.
Another completely unexaggerated statement: there has been a 99% drop in cases relating to legal help for debt between 2011/12 and 2015/16. However the TUC has found that 3.2m households are in problem debt. You don’t need to be a lawyer to work out that this huge reduction doesn’t accurately reflect the true need for debt advice. It’s a similar story for housing matters, with cases dropping by 64% in the same time period, despite the government’s continued emphasis on homelessness prevention. And again, for immigration advice not involving asylum or detention – a drop of nearly 100%.
“There has been a significant increase in my working hours and I am struggling on every case to fulfil both my statutory professional duties and to do justice to each and every case.” – Associate prosecutor
Four in five respondents to a staff survey cited cuts to legal aid (£220m a year by 2018/19) and nine in ten respondents cited the reduction of the MoJ’s budget (a total 20% reduction between 2010/11 and 2015/16) as being “detrimental to the effective delivery of justice”. Over half of those surveyed feel that their workloads have increased since 2010, often because of cuts to staffing and an increase in the volume of work. These cuts have also meant an increase in temporary or agency workers in place of experienced staff and of stress, unpaid work and errors being made.
The government has never provided a public interest case for why there should be such drastic reforms to the justice sector. Evidence for the changes have not been held up to public scrutiny, and the MoJ has failed to assess whether the reduction in spending on civil legal aid is overshadowed by additional costs in other parts of the public sector. Which makes you think: if lawyers have to look at a full body of evidence when building their case, then surely the government should do the same.
- Access to legal aid should be based on need
- The MoJ must carry out an immediate and in depth analysis of their reforms
- A moratorium on further budget and staffing cuts
- A pause on further court closures
- Any future reforms to the justice sector should be viewed within a whole systems approach