By Ila Tyagi
An LLM student in International Commercial Law at UCL, writes about the impact of LASPO and summarises the findings of a recent Amnesty International report addressing this issue.
The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was enacted with the objectives of reducing the government’s expenditure on legal spending during time of large fiscal deficits, providing legal aid to the people who need it most, reducing the cost of the legal aid scheme and providing the tax payer with better value for their money. However, it seems that the government did not fully consider the adverse impact of such drastic measures on vulnerable sections of the society. A recent report by Amnesty International reveals that LASPO negatively impacts poor and other vulnerable people.
Amnesty’s report concludes that LASPO has created a “two-tiered” structure for access to justice in England & Wales. This means that it has moved towards limiting access to justice to those who can afford to pay legal fees. The report also mentions that LASPO has encouraged the formation of “advice deserts” across England & Wales. This claim is well supported by the disappearance of many legal aid offices across the North of England.
LASPO has reduced the number of legal aid grants from 927,000 in 2012 to 497,000 in 2013, thus almost halving the amount of grants in just one year. Legal aid is now unavailable in family context if the applicant cannot show that they have suffered domestic abuse or there is a risk of child abuse.
LASPO also requires some people to represent themselves in court. This can be very daunting for teenagers and other people who have little knowledge about court processes and the law. People are usually unaware about how to properly fill out various sorts of legal forms and where to submit those forms. Therefore, it seems very harsh that they are expected to fully understand legal concepts and argue their case in courts by applying legal precedents. Not only can it be particularly intimidating for a layperson to argue in front of judges against barristers but it can also be very difficult for them to fully comprehend the judge’s elaborate legal reasoning. Representing themselves in court can be a serious challenge for vulnerable groups of people such as immigrants, refugees, teenagers, people with mental health problems and those with learning disabilities. A court case can be an extremely daunting and testing period in one’s life and going through it alone can feel very alienating and disheartening. It seems terribly unjust if a vulnerable person were to lose their case just because they did not have the legal knowledge or skills to fully understand the technicalities of the law that applies to their case.
Thus, LASPO creates an unfair legal system where access to justice is limited to those who can afford it. This does not fit well with the principles of a democratic society based on values such as equality. The government’s safety net program to grant legal aid to exceptionally vulnerable people is riddled with loopholes and is inadequate to satisfy the demands of all the people who could fall into that category.
The Amnesty Report proposes many solutions to the on-going legal aid crisis. A few of them are:
- It suggests that children and other young people should have access to legal aid irrespective of the legal issue at hand.
- It also requests the government to provide better legal education so that individuals can understand and claim their rights effectively.
- It asks the government to provide free legal advice to all cases of immigration where a significant human rights concern has been raised.
- It demands that government conduct a review of LASPO immediately.
The government has promised to undertake a full-scale review of LASPO in 2018. However, this seems like a long time to wait for much needed reform.
 Amnesty International, “Cuts That Hurt: The Impact of Legal Aid Cuts in England on Access to Justice”, 2016, EUR 45/4936/2016, Pg 36 https://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/aiuk_legal_aid_report.pdf
 Ibid Pg 21
 Ibid Pg 47