Withdrawal and restriction of legal aid in England and Wales has left huge swathes of the population without any means of redress against injustice. Amnesty International’s report ‘Cuts that Hurt’ describes the decimation of access to justice that has ‘left thousands of the most vulnerable…without essential legal advice and support”. The UN report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) describes the impact that lack of legal resources has on the treatment of people with disabilities.

It became obvious from the early stages of the legal aid reforms that to fulfil its mission PLP would have to, if at all possible, mitigate the impact of cuts to legal aid. The key legislation driving these reforms is the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, commonly known as “LASPO”. PLP’s strategic response  is the Legal Aid Support Project, or LASP. Through LASP we have monitored the implementation of LASPO, helped people to access legal aid, and brought strategic legal challenges to defend and in some cases even improve access to justice.

You can read in more detail about our exceptional funding project here.

The introduction of LASPO brought with it a new legal aid scheme, Exceptional Case Funding (ECF).  ECF was supposed to provide a safety net for those whose rights would be breached if they did not receive legal aid funding, but was initially practically inaccessible to applicants.  PLP initially provided assistance to  over 100 vulnerable people to apply for ECF,  and during the process developed an unrivalled evidence base, and brought after two major  test cases (reported as Gudanavaciene and IS). As a consequence application and grant rates for ECF have risen significantly. With immigration related ECF grant rates rose to over 150 per quarter by mid-2016, and at close to 200 per quarter for other ECF cases (from initial rates of respectively, zero and virtually zero). Non-inquest cases have, in the four quarters of 2017 risen above 1000.   There is little doubt that PLP’s LASP project has been a  definitive factor in this increase, not just through our assistance to those applying and bringing test test cases, but in our strategic partnerships and training, where we have built capacity in the whole sector to access the ECF system.   As a result not just many individuals but many important cases, especially in trafficking and immigration, have come to court which otherwise would not have been heard.

In 2018 we have published guides to accessing ECF across family, immigration, housing and Welfare benefits law to assist lawyers and advisers getting their clients legal representation. Our ECF training programme has national reach, currently extending through Midlands, London, North England and North Wales, with further reach achieved through in person training and webinars.

“I came to PLP for help getting legal aid exceptional funding as I could not find anyone else to help me. I lost my job and after that I was not able to make any profress in my case because I had no legal aid and no way of paying for a lawyer. Without PLP’s help I would have found it very difficult to have the same contact with my children as an able-bodied person. I am disable and I talk through a voice box which people often do not understand. With the help of my lawyer, I was able to get a fair hearing from the court and now have more contact with my children.”

-Mr Miah

 

PLP also brought a challenge to the proposed residence test for legal aid in our own name. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in April 2016 with the Court unanimously allowing our appeal. Because of our challenge the residence test has not been introduced and those it would have affected can continue to access legal aid. The impact is considerable, as the independent evaluation of the work from the Strategic Legal Fund for Vulnerable Young Migrants stated “Every day there will be people who get legal aid who would not have got it had the residence test been brought in…Hundreds and thousands of people affected”.

PLP has resisted many other threats to legal aid, including the imposition of unnecessarily strict evidence requirements for survivors of domestic abuse. In particular, we represented the charity Rights of Women (RoW) in a successful challenge to the lawfulness of the regulations, a case that laid the groundwork for the progressive policy developments in this area that are ongoing to this day.  This shows PLP’s partnership working; providing legal support to a charity seeking systemic change to help people being denied justice, where systemic unfairness exacerbated a group’s vulnerability.

PLP’s expertise in public law and legal aid provision. has been brought to bear on number of cases and issues involving legal aid contracting and procurement which would adversely affect vulnerable people and access to justice more widely.

We are currently representing the Law Centre’s Network in a challenge to the tender process for the Housing Possession Courts  Duty Scheme (HPCDS). T eh challenge contests that the Ministry of Justice’s decision to introduce price competition among bidders will result in an effective dismantling of the scheme, potentially exposing thousands to risk of homelessness where no or little support will be available.

In April 2014 the Government introduced regulations which threatened access to legal aid for judicial review claims, particularly for vulnerable people with complex cases. Under these regulations, lawyers would have to prepare judicial review cases for court without any certainty of being paid for their work. PLP represented a coalition of law rms and a charity to challenge these regulations. After the case succeeded, new regulations were introduced which present less of a nancial risk to providers, and so are less of a barrier to justice for people who need to hold the state to account.

PLP also successfully resisted the introduction of a clause into the Legal Aid Agency’s criminal contracts that could have prevented rms from legitimately criticising or challenging the Legal Aid Agency and the government.  The clause allowed for rms to be penalised or have their contracts ended if they did anything that ‘embarrassed’ or brought the Legal Aid Agency ‘into disrepute.’ In response to a pre-action letter sent by PLP on behalf of a law firm and a practitioners’ association, the Legal Aid Agency confirmed that it would not use the clause to stie criticism or challenge, and that it would consult with, amongst others, the Law Society and the Bar Council, before deciding whetherto revise the clause or make a statement clarifying its meaning.

We are expanding our research work on the impact of legal aid cuts, including collecting data on the impact of massively reduced civil legal advice services across England and Wales to inform the LASPO Government review.  We are also working with university law clinics on developing access to Exceptional Case Funding, and have published reports concerning clinical legal activity in the areas.  Our work with Exeter Law Clinic has resulted in the research report Exceptional Case Funding Clinics and we published in 2018 our report into Public law in clinical legal legal environments which considers how pro bono legal services in universities work with the legal aid system and legal aid providers, amongst other access to justice issues.