Access to legal aid continues to be restricted for many
In an attempt to bring down the costs of the British justice system, in April 2013 Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling announced new plans to cut the amount of legal aid available to people who need legal advice, family mediation or representation in court. Since then, reports of legal aid changes and setbacks have been prolific in the media, with stories typically consisting of critics campaigning against the changes, citing the implications of legal aid cuts on the lives of everyday people.
Despite the criticism, the UK Government has successfully removed legal aid in many areas of civil law, such as custody hearings in family law, and has come under serious criticism as a result, most noticeably from the National Audit Office. However, Chris Grayling's latest attempt to cut the legal aid bill has been stopped in its tracks after High Court judges ruled that guidelines on who is eligible for legal aid in “exceptional cases” were “unlawful” and “too restrictive”. The High Court ruling concluded that these guidelines wrongly stated that the threshold for legal aid funding was very high and that legal aid was only needed in rare and extreme cases.
Many legal cases may need to be reconsidered
When the UK Government outlined its plans to cut £220 million from the annual legal aid budget in England and Wales, they revealed that a safety net of “exceptional funding” would be available if it was deemed that being denied access to legal aid breached a person's human rights, or if a client's case was not in the scope of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. However, due to the “unlawful” guidelines, many people who should have received legal aid did not. Therefore, some exceptional cases may need to be reconsidered so that the defendant receives a fair and honest trail.
The news came as a blow to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) who believed that the exceptional funding scheme was working as intended. Legal aid is a vital aspect of the justice system, but the MoJ stressed that the resources to fund it are not limitless and therefore, only people in cases where it is vital should receive it. In light of the High Court ruling, the MoJ announced it would “carefully consider” what it plans to do next, but considering that the government is determined to achieve its savings target, we can expect to see revised guidelines for exceptional cases as we move further into 2015.
Victims of domestic violence are also restricted from legal aid
In December 2014, judges in another High Court case heard how many victims of domestic violence are being denied access to legal aid as a result of the government's changes. Under the new reforms, to apply for legal aid in a domestic violence claim, the victim must produce evidence of violence that is dated within the last 2 years but if the evidence is older or expires during the legal proceedings, then access to legal aid is automatically withdrawn.
Figures from a joint report by Rights of Women, Women's Aid Federation England and Welsh Women's Aid published in December 2014 show that since April 2014, 40% of women have not been able to produce the required evidence for legal aid, while 60% of women chose not to prosecute their abuser as a result of not being able to access legal aid.
Judges who heard the case have indicated that they will make their decision on the hearing in early 2015 - a decision which could cause more headaches for the government if the judges again rule that these changes were unlawful or unnecessarily restrictive.
Here at Fonseca and Partners, we have frequently reported on the issues surrounding legal aid as it directly impacts on us and our clients, and we will continue to keep you updated with the latest news regarding legal aid on our blog. If you need to make a personal injury claim, please contact us either by filling out our online claim form, calling 0800 156 0770 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.