The recent Means Test review means the landscape on legal aid is changing, but new Public Law Project research shows there is still much to be done to ensure it is accessible to those eligible.

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The Government’s recent Means Test Review means the landscape on legal aid is changing, but new research from the Public Law Project shows there is still much to be done to ensure legal aid is accessible to eligible low income homeowners, including domestic abuse survivors

‘Trapped capital and financial eligibility for legal aid’ by researcher Dr Emma Marshall and solicitor Daniel Rourke shows that despite a ruling in 2020 making legal aid more accessible for those with trapped capital, significant hurdles remain for low income homeowners in obtaining legal aid, including incorrect advice given by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA).

Based on surveys and interviews with providers, support workers, and a domestic violence charity, the research found that individuals are still unable to access legal aid in 30% of ‘trapped capital’ cases.

The research found that barriers to legal aid include financial disincentives for legal aid providers, a failure by the LAA to provide adequate training to its caseworkers or information to the public, and the discretionary nature of the rules around legal aid eligibility.

These problems persist despite litigation brought in November 2020 by PLP clients which resulted in two key changes that should make it more accessible:

  1. New regulations providing that when valuing a home as part of the capital test, the full value of any mortgage can now be deducted.
  2. Updated guidance to confirm that the Director of Legal Aid casework has a discretion to value a home ‘equitably’ (including by valuing it at £0), if there would otherwise be a breach of convention rights/the common law right of access to the court.

The case involved a domestic abuse survivor who was denied legal aid on the grounds of being a homeowner and therefore having capital. However, the client was not in a position to sell, and as such had ‘trapped capital’.

Dr Emma Marshall said:

Our research indicates one third of eligible claimants with trapped capital may be unable to access legal aid. These findings are deeply concerning. Unfortunately, the proposals outlined in the Government’s ongoing Means Test Review do not offer much cause for optimism.

More must be done to build a legal aid sector that is truly fit for purpose and able to better meet the needs of those it serves.

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