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we are disappointed the government is only uprating the gross income thresholds to 2019 prices, which are already out of date as the cost-of-living crisis causes prices to spiral.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 Government press release is https://www.gov.uk/government/news/access-to-vital-legal-support-extended-to-millions-of-vulnerable-people
The Law Society's legal aid desert map is here https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/campaigns/legal-aid-deserts