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Amnesty calls for review of LASPO as civil justice system ‘closed to the poorest’

In a new report into LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), Amnesty International have claimed that thousands of vulnerable people have been left without essential legal aid, advice and support due to cuts to civil legal aid.

Amnesty’s report, titled Cuts that Hurt: The impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice, demonstrates the negative impact that the controversial legislation has had on civil legal aid in England and Wales.

In the report Amnesty show the disproportionate impact the legislation has had on marginalised groups,  as well as highlighting the emergence of what it calls ‘advice deserts’ in parts of the Midlands, the South West and the North of England and documents how the ‘exceptional case funding safety net’ implemented by the government is currently failing to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

According to the research there were a total of 925,000 cases in the year before LASPO was introduced that were granted legal aid. Following the introduction of LASPO that figure dropped by a massive 46% to a total of 497,000 cases.

In announcing the group’s findings, Amnesty International’s Alice Wyss said that access to justice has been ‘decimated’ by the government’s cuts which now risk creating a ‘two-tier civil justice system’ that is ‘closed to the poorest’.

Wyss said: “From parents fighting for access to their children, to those trying to stay in the country they have grown up in, and to people with mental health problems at risk of homelessness, these cuts have hit the most vulnerable, the most.

“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.”

The report also highlights the rise in individuals being forced to represent themselves in court because of the cuts. There has been a rise of 22% in proceedings involving children where both parties are not represented by a solicitor, and a 30% rise in family proceedings overall. In total there has been a rise of 80% in cases where at least one party is forced to represent themselves.

The Ministry of Justice’s most recent statistics show that legally aided family law cases have decreased by 9% during the final quarter of 2016.

As part of their report, Amnesty interviewed several people who have to represent themselves in court. One woman told Amnesty: “I don’t have anyone. 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.

“I just don’t know if I can do it on my own and I have looked and asked everywhere for help but everything needs money and I don’t have it. So what am I meant to do?”

Recent estimates from the government suggest that there are up to 2,500 cases every year which involve children who cannot obtain legal advice for immigration cases, and are subsequently forced to act as litigants in court in person. Amnesty has therefore called for anyone under the age of 18 to have unconditional access to legal aid.

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.

“Without professional support they simply can’t access justice and they can’t engage with the legal process.”

The government have already committed to review the impact of the LASPO legislation by April 2018 at the latest, but Amnesty is calling for the review to happen immediately.