Written evidence from Mr William Flack

 

These answers are provided in a personal capacity only

 

       How Laspo Has Impacted Access To Justice And For Views On The Post-implementation Review And The Criminal Legal Aid Review

In my experience the biggest impact of Laspo in terms of impact to justice are the denial of legal advice for those with family, welfare benefits and immigration problems.  These often relate directly to housing law work which remains in scope but prevents people from being able to challenge problems which often give rise to housing problems.  This leads to the situation where someone is facing a claim for possession of their home due to  benefits problems but I can’t help to resolve the benefits problems.

 

This appears to be a serious denial of justice given that the public are often not able to challenge what are often complex decisions regarding welfare benefits and immigration issues and they are up against specialist professional opponents with publicly funded legal backing.

 

       The Role Of The Legal Aid Agency

The Legal Aid Agency is clearly struggling to provide an adequate service to those requiring access to justice.  The lack of training of staff and what appears to be hostility amongst management towards the legal profession has given rise to a tendency to make negative decisions based on the failure to understand legal arguments or to wish to challenge public bodies or Judges when it comes to appeals. This is compounded by a failure to engage in resolving problems with decisions and to Legal Aid Agency standing their ground unreasonably. 

 

The perception amongst the legal profession is that the Legal Aid Agency is often more prone to denying access to justice rather than facilitating it.  Solicitors seeking to help clients with complex legal problems often find that they have two opponents to deal with, the first being the client’s own opponent whether it be landlord or local authority and the second being the Legal Aid Agency.

 

       Recruitment And Retention Problems Among Legal Aid Professionals

 

I do not have direct experience of trying to recruit or retain staff at the moment.  I can however say that I could not in good conscience advise anybody thinking of becoming a Legal Aid lawyer at the moment to do so given the extremely low rates of payment for work and the lack of commitment on the part of the government to a properly funded and skilled Legal Aid sector.

 

       The Impact Of The Court Reform Programme And The Increasing Use Of Technology On Legal Aid Services And Clients

I do not have direct experience of the court reform programme.  I can only hope that the courts will continue to embrace information technology. The civil courts still only seem to be able to make limited use of email and/or digital documents.  It is very common for courts to claim to be unable to send documents by PDF and to instead send them in the post.  The websites used by the court service only provide limited information and as such represent no advance over the sorts of websites and online services that were common 30 years ago.

 

       The Impact Of Covid-19 On Legal Aid Services And Clients;

As a housing lawyer the impact of Covid-19 has primarily been that possession proceedings have been stayed and local Government offices have been extremely difficult to access.  Beyond that the service provision by local authorities and landlords has been surprisingly good.  Equally, the Legal Aid Agency has responded very positively to the crisis and relaxed some of their requirements so that for instance documents can now be signed digitally and hard copies of files do not need to be sent to the Legal Aid Agency where they did before.

 

       What The Challenges Are For Legal Aid Over The Next Decade, What Reforms Are Needed And What Can Be Learnt From Elsewhere.

The primary challenge for Legal Aid over the next decade will be to survive.  Over the last 10 years there has been an exodus of lawyers from Legal Aid giving rise to what are now recognised to be advice deserts. Unless something is done to address the reasons for this it can only continue. 

 

A secondary challenge will be to reverse some of the worst aspects of LASPO so as to enable people to obtain advice and assistance regarding welfare benefits, immigration and family law matters which they are unable to access at the moment.

 

Before any progress can be made in improving the situation with Legal Aid the Government needs to actually embrace Legal Aid as a service which is provided in good faith.  Successive Governments over the last 20 years have been highly critical of Legal Aid lawyers and treat the provision of Legal Aid services as an obstruction to government policy rather than implementation of it.

 

There may need to be radical reforms such as shifting the funding of some Legal Aid services particularly in social welfare such as housing or community care to the NHS as health issues rather than through the Ministry of Justice as traditional legal matters. A very large number of those requiring assistance with housing and (more obviously) community care matters have medical problems giving rise to the need for Legal Aid assistance.

 

I am not aware of places where lessons can be learnt for making these reforms.

 

 

October 2020