The Westminster Commission on Legal Aid, created by a cross-party panel of parliamentarians under the auspices of the APPG on Legal Aid, has published its report and recommendations after a year-long Inquiry into the state of the legal aid sector.
The Commission has set out a series of practical and necessary reforms that the government must implement if the legal aid provider base is to be sustainable in the short- to medium-term, and to ensure the scheme is sufficient to meet public legal need.
Over the course of the Inquiry the Commission found that:
- There has been a continued and gradual decline in access to justice with increasing numbers of people across England and Wales unable to access legal advice when they need it.
- It seems likely that this need will increase as we emerge from the pandemic, rebuild our communities and ‘level up’.
- This decline in access to justice has a number of causes including the areas of law taken out of the scope of legal aid, firms and organisations leaving legal aid and difficulties recruiting and retaining lawyers in civil and criminal legal aid.
On launching the report, Karen Buck MP (Chair of the Westminster Commission) said:
‘We began this Inquiry fearing that life during the pandemic has intensified the underlying stresses on the legal aid system and those who work in it. The wealth of evidence we heard confirmed this to be the case. Levels of need have soared whilst access to legal aid and to legal aid providers, in both civil and criminal law has declined. Legal aid lawyers go above and beyond in serving the public, but the business model on which they rely is increasingly unsustainable. Our report provides an in depth analysis of the state of legal aid in 2021 and, we believe, a roadmap to rebuilding a service upon which justice itself rests.’
James Daly MP (Vice-Chair of the Westminster Commission) said:
‘As a practising criminal defence solicitor for 16 years I know how important a vibrant legal aid sector is to ensuring access to justice for all. The profession is going through a period of unprecedented challenge and I hope this Inquiry can be part of an ongoing review to ensure criminal legal aid has a sustainable future and a realistic career option for young lawyers.’
Chair and Vice-chair Karen Buck and James Daly were supported by Commissioners: Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (Labour); Baroness Natalie Bennett (Green Party), Lord Willy Bach (Labour), Lord Colin Low (Cross-bencher), Laura Farris MP (Conservative), Yvonne Fovargue MP (Labour), Andy Slaughter MP (Labour), and Gareth Bacon MP (Conservative).
- Legal aid fees
- Recruitment and retention
- Broadening the scope of legal aid and meeting legal need
- Exceptional case funding
- Judicial review
- Means testing
LAPG fully endorses the Commission’s recommendations and calls upon the Ministry of Justice to take steps to implement them as soon as possible given the continued decline in legal aid providers and significant concerns about a lack of client access.
The APPG on Legal Aid receives secretariat support from LAPG and Young Legal Aid Lawyers.