Legal aid cuts are a major human rights issue

Amnesty found that the recent sharp cuts to civil legal aid have hurt not only those people already in the most pain, but the integrity of the justice system itself. 

Rachel Logan
14 December 2016

Amnesty's report, Cuts that Hurt, turns the spotlight on the damage to human rights – and the lives of thousands of people – brought about by the rushed reforms to legal aid.

The recent sharp cuts to civil legal aid have hurt not only those people already in the most pain, but the integrity of the justice system itself. That’s the grim conclusion of Amnesty’s year long research into the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) on access to justice in the UK.

This might not be where people expect Amnesty International researchers to be – travelling up and down the UK from Brighton to Newcastle, speaking to people in its courtrooms, lawyers’ offices, in the local meeting rooms of those at the coal face trying to support the most vulnerable in our own supposedly world class justice system. But sadly, LASPO has turned civil justice in this country upside down. The reforms have had a devastating human rights impact here in the UK. Thousands of the most vulnerable, including children and people with learning difficulties, have been left without essential legal advice and support. The opportunity to secure rights - and to challenge wrongs - is at risk of becoming a luxury only available to those with a significant amount of money and the ability to navigate an often complex and frightening legal system alone. For those seeking to ensure that everyone has equal access to rights and that the UK fulfils its international human rights obligations, pressing for the government immediately to start work on its promised review of the cuts has become a national priority.

Undocumented migrants are sleeping in parks, on the streets, they are getting themselves into risky situations, relying on people they shouldn’t and going without food. Since the legal aid cuts, they can't rely on the justice system to help.

Before LASPO, legal aid was generally available to help people access justice in almost all areas of civil law, with a few exceptions. Now, the reverse is the case. Civil legal aid is only available for a tiny number of areas of work, other than where people can somehow access the narrow provision for ‘exceptional case funding’ through a special scheme. For example, if you are struggling with a family crisis or a housing, education, debt, immigration or welfare benefit difficulty, unless you are in a certain protected narrow category of situation, the only way to get any legal advice or support is if you can find help to apply for exceptional case funding and can satisfy its requirements.

The effect has been catastrophic. There has been a 46% drop in the number of funded cases overall, with certain areas hit particularly hard. In welfare benefits cases, the drop has been a staggering 99%. Early advice - so critical to helping resolve people’s problems before they become disasters that cause huge pain and are more difficult expensive to solve - has vanished. What little legal assistance is still available is now unevenly spread across the country leaving vast “deserts” where there are no lawyers able to help anyone at all. Surviving not-for-profit providers are struggling to fill the gaps. Stretched to their maximum capacity and beyond, many are forced to turn away people who need help. As one immigration lawyer told Amnesty, this is:“devastating. It feels wrong. Take young undocumented migrants, it means that they are sleeping in parks, on the streets, they are getting themselves into risky situations, relying on people they shouldn’t, they are going without food and they can’t challenge that, they can’t challenge their situation because they have no access to legal advice and in turn no access to justice”.Not only has access to justice undoubtedly been severely restricted, but Amnesty’s second reluctant conclusion is that this policy shift has been discriminatory in effect – disproportionately hitting those already marginalised and disadvantaged in society.  Migrants, children and young people, and people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities have been particularly badly hit, as have the poorest in the UK. As one lawyer told us, “The idea that children and young people can represent themselves just does not work. This is such a vulnerable group. It’s not just that they don’t understand legal processes and legal concepts, which they don’t, but it’s also that they have no idea how to fill forms out properly, what to write, where to send paperwork, where to get advice and who to speak to. Without professional support they simply can’t access justice and they can’t engage with the legal process.”

The cuts have entrenched socio-economic inequalities in the justice system. Those living in poverty are more likely to face legal problems in those areas of life now excluded from the scope of legal aid (like housing and welfare benefits), and are also necessarily more affected because they cannot afford to pay for the help then need. While Amnesty spoke to large numbers of people who has been in that situation what was just as troubling was the unknown – the number of people who are impossible to find because they are not getting any support of any kind. There’s just no way to know how big that invisible majority is. There is also no real safety net  –  the exceptional case-funding scheme just doesn’t work in practice to protect people’s rights.

The cuts have entrenched socio-economic inequalities in the justice system. 

What’s particularly shocking is that the government was quite open when LASPO was introduced that the cuts were explicitly made without it having done detailed research into the impact they were likely to have on people’s rights and daily lives. What few impact assessments were carried out were woefully inadequate. Amnesty is quite clear that the government did not do enough work to be able to understand whether the outcome was likely to be proportionate to its financial aims and would not undermine human rights protections in the UK. Numerous UN bodies have now concluded the UK is failing to meet its obligations. But no number of international warnings or disputes about the extent of human rights commitments can capture the human cost.

We can’t settle for this. Legal aid has always been the guarantee of equal access to the law, of rights that are meaningful and effective. It’s well past time for the government to fulfil the promise it made to review the impact of these reforms. With every day that passes, the structural damage to access to justice increases, and we risk passing the point of no return.

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