“Nowhere else to turn: The impact of legal aid cuts on MPs’ ability to help their constituents”
A report setting out the findings of a study by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, investigating the effect of the legal aid cuts on the ability of MPs to help their constituents (download from below). To be launched in Parliament at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid at 1330 on 14th March 2012.
The background to this study is the Government’s proposed reforms to legal aid in England and Wales. The reforms promise to bring about the most radical change to the legal aid scheme since its inception in 1949. Changes contained within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) currently going through parliament will mean that hundreds of thousands of individuals will no longer receive legal aid. This begs the question: what will those individuals do without legal aid to help them resolve their problems? One possible answer is that they will turn to their MPs. This study aims to examine the impact that the legal aid cuts will have on the ability of MPs to help their constituents.
The study found that constituents frequently turn to MPs as a last resort when they have been unable to resolve their legal problems. As a result, MPs devote a significant amount of their time and resources to assisting their constituents in resolving their problems. However, there is a limit to the assistance which MPs are able to provide. Put simply, MPs lack the resources and the expertise to assist with complex legal problems. As a result they are reliant on publicly funded sources of legal advice such as Law Centres. These local services are already strained meaning that constituents are increasingly turning to MPs because they cannot find other help locally. At the same time MPs are finding it increasingly difficult to find free, specialist legal advisors to refer their constituents to.
There is a likelihood that this situation will deteriorate as the cuts come into effect. The areas of law that are to be removed from the scope of legal aid correspond closely with those areas for which constituents habitually turn to their MPs for assistance. Overall, 56.2% of the issues that constituents wanted to raise with their MP would not receive legal aid funding if the Legal Aid Bill is enacted. The logical inference is that MPs will be faced with more such issues if the cuts come into force.
The study concludes that constituents who are affected by the legal aid cuts are likely to seek assistance from their MPs and that this will place increased pressure on the time and resources of MPs. There is a risk that MPs will struggle to deal with this burden and that constituents will lose out as a result.
1. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) is a group of junior lawyers who are committed to practising in those areas of law, both criminal and civil, that have traditionally been publicly funded. YLAL members include students, paralegals, trainee solicitors, pupil barristers and qualified junior lawyers based throughout England and Wales.
2. The study is a “snapshot” study undertaken to indicate current trends and future challenges.
3. All MPs in England and Wales were contacted to ask if they would like to take part in the study. The responses in this study come from MPs and caseworkers in 45 constituencies: 29 Labour, ten Conservative, five Liberal Democrat and one Green. The study also incorporates responses from 128 constituents in 30 of these constituencies.
4. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (also known as the Legal Aid Bill or LASPO) will remove several areas of civil law from the scope of legal aid. Funding will no longer be provided for employment or private law family disputes (except where domestic violence is an issue) or for advice on immigration (non-asylum cases), welfare benefits, housing or debt (unless the home is at risk).
5. These changes take place alongside the wider reforms such as those contained in the Welfare Reform Bill and the Localism Act 2011. These changes are likely to generate an increased need for legal help in the short-term.
6. Research by the Legal Action Group (LAG) in 2011 estimated that at least 650,000 people each year would lose free advice if the proposals contained in LASPO go through (Jessica Freitas and Steve Hynes, The Real Impact of Legal Aid Advice Cuts, LAG). It has been reported that 50% of legal aid firms and one in three Law Centres risk closure as they will no longer be financially viable (see Cuts to put half of legal aid firms at risk of closure, Catherine Baksi, Law Society Gazette, 24 February 2011 and Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, Briefing by The Law Centres Federation, September 2011). The Government has estimated that the not-for-profit sector as a whole will lose an estimated 75% of its funding as a result of the cuts (Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales: Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) Ministry of Justice, page 28, para 1.40). LAG has expressed concern that up to 80% of not-for-profit providers will be forced to leave legal aid (Social welfare law: what the public wants from legal aid, LAG, March 2012).
7. In the six month period preceding the study on average 38.4% of MPs casework had involved legal issues. Twenty per cent of MPs dealt with 200-500 constituent inquiries per month and 13% dealt with over 500. Surgeries are held on a regular basis, usually weekly, and a third of MPs spent between half and three-quarters of their time resolving their constituents’ issues.
8. During the six months preceding the study, 71.1% of MPs had needed to refer constituents to a legal adviser. Breaking this down, 66.7% of MPs had referred constituents to Citizens Advice Bureaux for generalist advice; 64.4% had referred constituents for specialist advice from a dedicated not-for-profit organisation such as a Law Centre; and 60% of MPs had referred constituents to legal aid solicitor firms.