The Westminster Commission on Legal Aid is a cross-party initiative formed by the APPG on Legal Aid to examine the state of the legal aid sector as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. The full effects of the pandemic on the economy are yet to unfold. We are now in the largest recession on record, with the economy having contracted by 20.4% between April and June 2020. The Office of National Statistics has said that the recession brought on by the pandemic has led to the largest fall in quarterly GDP on record with the Money and Pensions Service highlighting that some sectors will be hit harder than others. The Money and Pensions Service have also identified that many of the worst impacts will be felt by those who are least financially resilient – low income families, younger people and students, parents with dependent children, women, BAME, renters, the self-employed, those working variable hours and in the gig economy. Emerging from the pandemic, many of these individuals are likely to need legal advice and be unable to afford it. Their ability to access justice will be dependent heavily on the continued availability of publically funded legal aid.
Over the last year, the Commission held the following oral evidence sessions: criminal legal aid; family legal aid; civil (non-family) legal aid; the publicly funded bar; access to justice; and the future of the legal aid workforce (experiences of junior practitioners). It also carried out extensive desk-based research, and further engagement with expert practitioners, to provide context to and a broader exploration of the issues and concerns raised by witnesses at the oral evidence sessions.
Overall, they found that the service being provided to the public is not sufficient and the legal aid profession as it stands is not sustainable.