Legal aid cuts creating two-tier justice system, says Amnesty ~ Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent, THE GUARDIAN.
Cuts to legal aid are far worse than anticipated and are creating a “two-tier” system which denies the poorest people access to justice, warns a critical report by Amnesty International.
The government should conduct an urgent review of the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act, which came into effect in 2013 and has severely restricted funding, the study says. A review has been promised within three to five years but ministers have delayed.
The year before the act was introduced, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases, Amnesty points out. The year after, assistance was given in 497,000 cases, a drop of 46%.
The report calls for all children to be granted entitlement to legal aid regardless of the issues at stake. Some teenagers, it says, are at risk of having to represent themselves in immigration cases where they may face deportation.
The Legal Aid Agency’s exceptional case funding system, which was supposed to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable claimants, is said to be inadequate and flawed.
Laspo has been blamed for a surge in the number of litigants in person, slowing court processes. Legal aid is no longer available in the family courts unless one partner can prove he or she was a victim of domestic violence.
One consequence has been that separating couples are not evenly represented. One woman told Amnesty: “When I go to court I have to cross-examine my ex. That terrifies me. I have so many sleepless nights. If I lose I know I will blame myself – it’s because I wasn’t good enough. But then I think, how can I be good enough when I’m up against a barrister?”
Legal aid for immigration cases has also been cut, exposing unaccompanied or separated children to having to make applications to stay in the UK on their own, unrepresented. The report says up to 2,500 children a year are claimants in their own right in such cases, according to MoJ figures.
Children are at an “automatic disadvantage as the laws, processes and systems governing their circumstances are profoundly complex”, the report states. “They require specialist advisers that are experienced not just in immigration law, but also with working with children.”
One lawyer told Amnesty: “The idea that children and young people can represent themselves just does not work. This is such a vulnerable group. It’s not just that they don’t understand legal processes and legal concepts, which they don’t, but it’s also that they have no idea how to fill forms out properly, what to write, where to send paperwork, where to get advice and who to speak to.”
A youth worker told Amnesty: “I had one young person I was working with who had to self-represent at the lower asylum and immigration tribunal. He had a good case, but no access to legal aid … I accompanied him to court, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to help him as I’m not qualified but could give him moral support.
“He was vulnerable, he didn’t know what to expect. I had to explain everything: what the court looks like, what the environment will be. He didn’t know, he hadn’t seen any of it before. All he could do was tell his story to the judge, he couldn’t argue the case law … We asked for an adjournment but the court said no. In the end his appeal was refused.”
Alice Wyss, Amnesty International’s UK researcher, said: “Cuts to legal aid imposed by this government have decimated access to justice and left thousands of the most vulnerable without essential legal advice and support. We are in danger of creating a two-tier civil justice system, open to those who can afford it, but increasingly closed to the poorest and most in need of its protection.
“If Theresa May is really determined to deliver a country that works for all then there needs to be a justice system for everyone, not just those who can afford it.The government must start by protecting the most vulnerable and launching a review of this failing system immediately.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have a generous legal aid system – last year spending more than £1.5bn on legal aid. We must ensure legal aid is sustainable and fair – both for those who need it and the taxpayer who pays for it. That is why we have made sure support remains available to the most vulnerable and in the most serious cases, and are taking action to ensure people can access the help they need.”