Background to the workshops
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) which came into force in April 2013, introduced cuts of £350 million to the overall budget for legal aid. The majority of these cuts fell in the area of civil legal aid: cuts totalling £278 million were achieved through removing whole areas of law from the scope of the legal aid scheme. Whilst the reductions in legal aid for family law account for the majority of the savings, the next most affected area of law is social welfare law , which accounts for 21% of the total savings (Cookson, 2011:15). In April 2013 the UK government published plans for further cuts of £220million to legal aid. These proposals, published in the consultation document: “Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system” mainly concerned criminal legal aid. Whilst campaigning work led to the abandonment (in September 2013) of the Ministry of Justice’s initial proposals to introduce price competitive tendering, the revised consultation that followed this announcement retained proposals to: reduce the fees paid to those who practise criminal legal aid by 17.5%, decrease the number of firms permitted to undertake duty solicitor work and prevent a rise in fee rates in line with inflation throughout the lifetime of the new contract, which will be in place until 2020. Provisions relating to civil law include: the introduction of a 12 month residency test for applicants for civil legal aid, restrictions on funding for judicial review, and the removal of funding for civil cases where there is a less than 50% chance of success. The Ministry of Justice is due to publish its response to the revised consultation, “Transforming Legal Aid: Next steps” shortly. If introduced, these measures, combined with those affecting providers of criminal legal aid, will compound the reduction in the supply of legal advice and representation effected by the introduction of LASPO.
In the Australian context, since the early 2000s there have been significant changes to the eligibility and accessibility of legal assistance as a result of increases in demand and government cuts to funding, underpinned by a rhetoric of austerity. This has resulted in a major increase in self-represented litigants and defendants. The 2013 cuts made to Australian legal aid budgets have effectively removed assistance to some of the most vulnerable individuals coming before the law and forced the closure of Community Legal Centres and some Legal Aid offices, leading to redundancies, and more centralised centres required to handle more clients, with less funds (Chadwick, 2013). The most recent federal budget in Australia has failed to respond to calls from the legal community to increase funding, with the federal government maintaining their 35% contribution to federal legal aid cases, and the state government providing just $600,000 funding for the next financial year, after the $3.1 million debt built up by Victoria Legal Aid in 2012-2013 is repaid (Neal, 2013). On a national scale, the recently elected Federal Coalition government has also proposed removing legal aid assistance for those seeking asylum – a change, they claim, that will save approximately $100 million over four years (Nightingale 2013). As Australian Senator Penny Wright has acutely argued “increasingly, ordinary Australians are being priced out of the court system because they cannot afford legal representation and court fees” (cited in Lee, 2013).