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LAPG have issued a statement following publication of the Government's response to the Legal Aid Means Test Review. Nicola Mackintosh KC (Hon), Co-Chair of LAPG is quoted and states:

‘Everyone should be entitled to access justice, regardless of their ability to pay for legal advice and representation. The means test for legal aid is totally outdated and has needed urgent reform. Many of the proposals to change the system are to be welcomed, so that more of the population are eligible for help with legal costs and therefore have access to justice. It is however a missed opportunity to rectify some of the worst injustices in the legal aid scheme such as the need for vulnerable disabled people detained in the community to have a right to non-means tested representation.

But although there are some welcome changes, there is an elephant in the room, and it is a very large elephant which is not addressed by this report.

Civil and criminal legal aid is in crisis, with stagnant rates of pay for decades. Legal aid practitioners are being forced to leave because it is impossible to continue to practice. Firms are reducing legal aid work, because it is unsustainable and the endless bureaucracy is exhausting. Without legal aid practitioners, there will be no increased access to justice because there will be no-one to deliver the services the public need. Extending eligibility ignores the urgent and pressing need for the justice system to have an immediate injection of funds to increase rates to keep existing practitioners. Otherwise the thousands, or millions of people who may benefit from the means test changes will find themselves in exactly the same position because on the ground there will be no-one to provide them with a legal aid service’.

Widened eligibility to free legal advice is an important step in the right direction, the Law Society of England and Wales has said. But urgent action must be taken to ensure people can access it.

The Ministry of Justice today (25 May) announced the outcome of its legal aid means test review consultation.

“Widening eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid is an important step in the right direction and something we have long been pushing for,” said Law Society President Lubna Shuja.

“Legal aid is a lifeline for people, usually living in poverty, to help them in moments of crisis such as when they are facing eviction or seeking protection from a violent partner for themselves and their children.

“Millions of extra people should now be able to receive free advice when they are facing life-changing legal problems.

“We welcome the continued passporting of victims of abuse on universal credit seeking a protective order for themselves and their children. However, we would like to see this go further with non-means tested legal aid in these cases and universal credit considered a passporting benefit in all cases. We also need to see the detail to understand if the proposals have addressed our concerns regarding the relative disadvantage for lone parent families.

“Means test eligibility has not been updated in line with inflation since 2009 despite prices having risen by 40%. Whilst the increased thresholds are welcome, we are disappointed the government is only uprating the gross income thresholds to 2019 prices, which are already out of date as the cost-of-living crisis causes prices to spiral. We need to consider the detail of the proposals to understand if other thresholds reflect inflationary increases.

“Increased eligibility is long overdue, but if thresholds are not regularly increased with inflation the cost-of-living crisis will mean more and more people are going to fall back through the justice gap.

“We hope the means test changes will be implemented as soon as possible and is not impinged by the fragility of the Legal Aid Agency’s IT systems,” added Lubna Shuja.

“But for this more generous eligibility to make a meaningful difference, the public must be able to find a solicitor to provide help when they so badly need it.

“Our legal aid desert maps and duty solicitor heatmaps have demonstrated there is an acute crisis in legal aid provision. Large areas of the country have no access to face-to face civil legal aid services and police station duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales are in peril.

“Investment is needed in civil and criminal legal aid provision right now.”

The Law Society's legal aid desert map is here

A new survey of solicitors by the Law Society of England and Wales indicates that the profession views the reduction in legal aid availability as a major reason for the decline in access to justice, .

64% of surveyed lawyers said overall access to justice for civil and criminal matters has worsened over the past ten years. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents cited the reduction in the areas covered by legal aid as amongst the biggest barriers to people accessing justice in England and Wales.

“We are hearing from those with first-hand experience of working in the legal sector that the fundamental right to access to justice has become more and more difficult to uphold over the last ten years,” said Law Society president Lubna Shuja.

“Consistent underfunding of the justice system in the ten years since crushing legal aid cuts were introduced in 2013 means that people are all too often not able to get the support they need if they are unable to afford private legal fees. Over the past 10 years there has been a 41% decrease in magistrates’ court representation.”

Lubna Shuja added: “Solicitors’ perspectives on how government policy has weakened the UK’s rule of law are similarly damning. Our research shows that 61% of our members are concerned about the impact recent government policy (over the past 2 years) has had.”

The survey aims to find out about members’ working lives, as well as their perceptions and challenges as they relate to their professional lives, the pro bono work they do and issues that unite the profession.

Research shows there are disparities across branches of the profession and different demographics in terms of workplace satisfaction and career progression.

“We recognise there is still work to be done for all members to feel they can equally enjoy a rewarding career in law,” said Law Society President Lubna Shuja.

“We commend those working in the legal sector for the important work they do, and the solidarity shown in standing up for vitally important tenets of access to justice and the rule of law.”

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