Since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), legal aid has been decimated in the UK. One-fifth of law centres across England and Wales have closed their doors and legal aid deserts are now cropping up all across the UK.
On top of this, with the means test for legal aid lowered, the threshold now means many individuals who cannot afford legal representation, are forced to represent themselves. In the last six years, this kind of representation has increased five-fold.
Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University calls this the ‘Justice Gap’ and argues that millions of people could potentially fall through it.
Now, a recent report published by the Law Centres Network, “Law for All,” has revealed just how serious the situation is, highlighting the “justice challenges” brought forward by the global pandemic. Revealing the stark number of individuals who are being denied justice in the UK, the report asks whether the situation can be improved, and what is needed to fill the Justice Gap.
In July 1970, the UK’s first law centre opened. The North Kensington Law Centre, was first located on Golborne Road, in an old butchers shop, and was founded to make law and justice accessible to all. It sought to resolve the “two standards of law, one for the rich and one for the poor” by ensuring that “first place” was given “to the poor client”.
However, now even the first law centre that pioneered a movement and instigated UK-wide change, is feeling the impact of years of austerity cuts. Unfortunately, this has been felt by law centres across the country. Most recently, the Brent Community Law Centre, in North-West London was forced to close after nearly five decades of helping the community.
According to Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network, since 1970, law centres have helped over three million battle for justice. In the “Law for All” report, Bishop says that collectively, law centres have helped people: “Stay in their homes, keep their jobs, access support they were entitled to, fight the denial of services, fight wrong decisions and fight back against abuses of power”.
However, the battle for justice has become increasingly difficult. Back in the 2000s, there were over 70 law centres driving social change and defending the rights of those in deprived communities. This number has been massively reduced. Now, there are around 40. A number, which unfortunately is likely to shrink further in the coming years.
Commenting on this, Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at The Law Society of England and Wales said. “Since LASPO, nothing is covered by legal aid unless it’s specifically listed in the Act”. He added: “The system is now very constrained, the service that’s left is very fragmented and it can’t really work towards a holistic solution for the individual”.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the UK Law Centres movement, the Law Centres Network launched its campaign “Law for All”. This campaign began with the release of its report, assessing the legal aid situation in the wake of the global pandemic.
The report states that a number of different pressures have arisen from the crisis, leading to a higher demand for legal aid services. Calls to law centres across the UK, concerning issues such as employment rights, have increased by between 90% and 500% in March and June.
Shockingly, figures show that 56% of earners fall into the Justice Gap, and 94% of single parents with 3 primary school aged children, would have to choose between poverty and no legal protection.
The Law Centres Network report also reveals some worrying predictions related to unemployment. It outlines that 9.4 million workers are now on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) as of 5 July 2020. However, many are concerned about what will happen once the furlough scheme ends. At present, the forecasts are not optimistic.
The Bank of England’s Policy Forecast, estimates that unemployment will rise to 9% in 2020. Looking further on, KPMG’s most recent report, Hard Times, suggests that this figure will increase to 11% by 2021. Almost reaching the unemployment rate of the 1980s recession.
Meanwhile, when it comes to housing, the report states that one in five renters have had to make the choice between rent and food. Consequently, one in four, have had to “voluntarily” leave their homes.
As has been widely reported, cases of domestic abuse have also spiked during the crisis, with many people being trapped inside with their abusers, having nowhere to go. Between 9 March and 19 April alone, there were 17,275 recorded domestic abuse incidents. This is up 9% from the same period in 2019.
Additionally, phone calls made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have surged by 50%, while visits to the helpline’s site have increased by 400%. Similarly, according to the report, the North East Law Centre reported a 64% increase in new enquiries relating to domestic abuse between April and June.
Despite this surge in demand, law centres are not equipped to cope. The report notes that for the year ending 2019, 42% of Law Centres recorded a deficit. On top of this, at the beginning of the pandemic, 54.5% of law centres had less than three months of reserve funding. Further to this, 76% of law centres had less than six months of reserve cash.
In a bid to help legal aid organisations deal with the impact of the crisis, a group of six grant-giving foundations united in May, to inject some much needed financial support into the sector.
The Community Justice Fund, hosted by the Access to Justice Foundation, is funded by, Therium Access, Legal Education Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, AB Charitable Trust and Indigo Trust. Additional financial support has been provided by the Law Society, Linklaters, London Legal Support Trust and Allen and Overy.
However, while this funding injection was welcomed, the “Law for All” report suggests that the crisis has highlighted the precariousness of relying on legal aid income and MoJ funding, which itself has seen a 40% budget cut since 2010. As a result, the report makes a number of recommendations, which it says could help law centres and other legal aid organisations weather the storm.
Primarily, the Law Centres Network states that funding streams need to be diversified, by moving away from reliance on local and central government and short-term grant payments. It suggests that the creation of an independent “Justice Fund,” will help to plug financial gaps and that £100,000 in seed funding has already been received from UK law firms.
Additionally, the report stresses the need for more involvement by the legal community. Subsequently, it proposes the creation of a “Justice Club,” which would encourage lawyers to support law centres, by taking on pro-bono cases. It suggests the club would also have a monthly stream of donations which members could opt-in to.
Finally, the report’s third strategy involves establishing better public engagement, and prioritises educating the public on the importance of legal centres and other legal aid organisations. It says that this will involve informing the public on how many of them fall into the Justice Gap, and stressing the essential work that law centres perform.
Reflecting on the changes that need to be made to ensure a sustainable future for legal aid services, Julie Bishop, Director at the Law Centres Network said: “Our data shows a funding sinkhole: many working families are not covered by legal aid and do not know it. If they are personally affected by the pandemic’s economic impact, they are unlikely to afford legal fees for protecting their home and loved ones. As the country begins recovering from the pandemic, we must ‘build back better’ and create long-term sustainable funding that can meet the changing needs of the communities we serve”.