Ministry to pilot expansion of legal aid for early advice in social welfare law

The Government is to pilot the expansion of legal aid to cover early legal advice “in a specific area of social welfare law”, the Ministry of Justice has announced.

“We will test the impact of early legal advice and use the evidence to inform our future consideration of early intervention,” the Ministry of Justice said as part of a new ‘Legal Support Action Plan’.

This plan was developed following a year-long review of the changes to legal aid made by the coalition government in 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

The means test for those with parental responsibility to oppose placement or adoption orders in family law proceedings will meanwhile be removed and legal aid will be made available for these proceedings.

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The measures in the action plan will also include:

  • Reviewing the thresholds for legal aid entitlement and wider eligibility criteria – “this will ensure that in circumstances where it is necessary, legal aid continues being accessible to those who need it most”;
  • Amending the Exceptional Case Funding process to improve timeliness and making it easier to access – “this will make it easier for people to access legal aid for cases which are not generally in scope, but where there is a risk of a breach of human rights and a lawyer is required”;
  • Expanding the scope of legal aid to include legal aid for non-asylum immigration matters for separated migrant children; and to cover all Special Guardianship Orders in private family law cases;
  • Investing up to £5m in innovative forms of legal support, “harnessing the power of the UK’s thriving LawTech sector to modernise and expand the services on offer”;
  • Doubling funding for the Litigants in Person Support Strategy to £3m for the next two years, “to ensure those representing themselves in court understand the process and are better supported through it”; and
  • Ensuring early intervention by delivering a series of pilots to explore new ways of delivering legal support and enhanced services for people in need. “This will include testing new approaches to signposting support early in the process; piloting and testing legal support hubs; and bringing together existing legal support services”.

Justice Minister Lucy Frazer, said: “Legal aid will continue to play an important role and we are committed to ensuring people can access the help they need into the future.

“However, in seeking to bolster legal aid as a key part of helping people with a diverse range of problems, we are clear that there is much to do aside from legal aid, so we are emphasising the need for new technologies and new ideas to catch people early, before their problems escalate to the courtroom."

The MoJ has also published a final report into the review of legal aid provision for inquests. Changes to be made include: ensuring that inquests are more sympathetic to the needs of bereaved families and that families are more able to participate, with all parties clear about what is expected of them throughout the process; and improving guidance and advice to increase understanding and awareness of the availability of legal aid for inquests.

“We will be looking into further options for the funding of legal support at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. To do this we will work closely with other Government Departments,” the MoJ said.

A review of criminal legal aid payment schemes has already been announced “to ensure criminal defence remains a sustainable and attractive career”.

The Bar Council said it was disappointed by the Government’s post-implementation review of LASPO.

Chair Richard Atkins QC said: “Whilst we welcome the MoJ commitment to early intervention to reduce the distress and cost to all of court proceedings and the willingness to include the Bar Council and others in the proposed continuing review we consider that this is a wasted opportunity. The 500-page report offers little of substance to ease the impact of LASPO on vulnerable individuals seeking justice. “

“Although up to £5m investment has been promised to improve technology for accessing legal advice and £3m over two years to help litigants in person navigate the court system, such monies are but a drop in the ocean given the impact LASPO has had on restricting individuals’ access to justice. We fully understand that the MoJ is constrained by budgetary limits, but this review provides clear evidence that the Treasury must find a way to properly fund the justice system and reverse a decade of cuts.”

Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society, said the measures in the action plan were a shift in the right direction.

She added: “We hope these changes will make it easier for ordinary people to qualify for legal aid and access essential help and support.

“However, welcome as this further work is, the government must give urgent attention to amending the means test thresholds because the current levels are preventing families in poverty from accessing justice; and remuneration rates for solicitors undertaking this vital work must be reviewed for civil as well as criminal work, to address the medium term viability of the system. As a first step, they should be uprated in line with inflation ahead of further work to make the system sustainable.”

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