About the Inquiry
Background to the Inquiry
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.
Objectives and Structure of the Inquiry
Prior to the crisis, those delivering legal aid were generally either doing so at a loss and/or reliant on subsidies from private work or grant funding. This was not a sector that was financially robust and able to withstand the severe reductions in income that have eventuated from the crisis. The crisis has had a severe economic impact on those delivering legal aid so, over a period of six months commencing October 2020, the Commission will:
- hold oral evidence sessions on Criminal Legal Aid, Family Legal Aid, Civil (Non-Family) Legal Aid, Experiences of the Bar, Access to Justice and the Future of the Legal Aid Workforce; and
- carry out an in-depth workforce survey to gather and analyse quantitative and qualitative data about financial viability and human resources to establish a comprehensive picture of how many organisations and practitioners are currently working in legal aid, their ability to enter and remain in the profession, their capacity to respond to client need, and in doing so to forecast how many legal aid firms and NfP organisations will still be practicing in this area in the years ahead.
The intention behind this research is to gather the evidence required to assess the impact of the legislative climate and the pandemic upon access to justice and equality both for practitioners and members of the public. We hope that this will inform the policy-making that will determine how the legal aid system recovers from the crisis, both immediately and in the longer term.
Terms of Reference
The sustainability of the legal aid sector has been a long-standing source of concern following swingeing cuts made by successive Governments and as a consequence of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Evidence shows that there are fewer lawyers entering the field and increasing numbers of firms forced to either take on private work to remain commercially viable or leave the sector entirely. Legal Aid Agency figures show a sharp decrease in the number of organisations delivering legal aid over the last decade leading to well-publicised advice deserts throughout England and Wales. In 2013 there were  providers with Criminal Legal Aid Contracts and  providers with Civil legal aid contracts. As of 15 September 2020, the LAA confirmed that there are 1,138 providers who hold a Criminal Legal Aid contract and 1,478 firms who hold a Civil Legal Aid contract. Of the providers that remain in the sector there are a worrying number of legal aid contracts lying ‘dormant’ as organisations elect not to use them and to pursue more commercially lucrative cases instead. All of these factors create significant barriers for members of the general public trying to access justice.
This picture has been made even more precarious by the pandemic and consequent months of lockdown, remote hearings, reduction in workflow and inevitable loss of income that practitioners have experienced across the civil and criminal legal aid world. It is also anticipated that there will be a large increase in demand when the moratorium on evictions is lifted and the courts fully open and try to tackle the backlog of cases. Consequently, there is a real imperative to assess the current capability of the legal aid system and how this will look in the future so that all members of society are able to access justice, no matter what their circumstances.