In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force. LASPO (and the regulations made under it) is the legislation that shapes the current legal aid scheme. It removed many areas of civil law from the scope of legal aid. Other important changes included the introduction of a mandatory telephone gateway as the means of accessing legal advice in discrimination, education and debt matters; more restrictive financial eligibility criteria for legal aid; and the introduction of the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme to provide a ‘safety net’ for people whose cases were no longer in scope for legal aid, but whose Convention or EU law rights risked being breached if their cases were not funded.

PLP was concerned about LASPO’s implications for access to justice, and in response developed the Legal Aid Support Project. The aim of the project was to mitigate, where possible, the impact that the cuts to legal aid would have on access to justice. Through the Legal Aid Support Project, PLP engaged with LASPO on several different levels. We supported people affected by the legislation, we provided training and published resources, we responded to government consultations and prepared briefings, and we engaged in litigation, both acting for claimants and in our own name.

In March 2018, the Ministry of Justice began the Post-Implementation Review (PIR) of LASPO, setting the end of September 2018 as the deadline for the submission of evidence. PLP engaged with the PIR and you can find our submission here. It explains how, in our experience, the LASPO legal aid scheme is not accessible, effective, or sustainable, and has contributed to a worsening justice deficit. The submission drew upon research reports and briefings that PLP had produced in 2018, which you can read more about and access here.

On 07 February 2019, the Government published the LASPO PIR report, and Legal Support Action Plan, a document containing future plans for the legal aid scheme. The plans include the reintroduction of in-scope legal aid for Special Guardianship Orders in family law cases by Autumn 2019; removing the mandatory telephone gateway for accessing legal aid for Debt, Discrimination and Education cases by Spring 2020; a promise to review the way that the ECF scheme operates, including the way that urgent applications are handled by the Legal Aid Agency by Autumn 2019; a promise to review the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid by Summer 2020; and introducing non-means tested legal aid for people with parental responsibility who want to contest adoption or placement orders in family law cases by Summer 2019.

Access to legal aid remains a key focus of PLP’s work. We will engage with the outcomes of the PIR and the Government’s recommendations published in February 2019, particularly those outlined in the Legal Support Action Plan. We will also continue to engage with other ongoing reforms to the justice system, for example, those outlined in Transforming our Justice System, published in September 2016.  Whatever shape these changes take in practice, PLP will continue to use our expertise to advocate for a legal aid scheme that facilitates equal access to justice for all.

You can see some case studies of the work PLP has done on access to legal aid here.