A consultation on the legal aid means test was launched by the UK government earlier this week (15 March). The Law Society of England and Wales has welcomed the proposals to expand legal aid eligibility, stating that they are “a substantial step in the right direction”.
The changes to the legal aid means test will be achieved by raising the income and capital thresholds for legal aid. This means that over 2 million more people in England and Wales will have access to civil legal aid and 3.5 million more will have access to criminal legal aid at the magistrates’ court.
For the first time ever, legal representation will be made free for all under-18s and parents challenging doctors over withdrawal of their child’s life support, as will legal help for families at inquests where there has been a potential breach of human rights.
Commenting on the launch of the consultation Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce, stated:
“Legal aid is a fundamental part of the British justice system, ensuring those who cannot afford legal advice are able to receive it in the same way as those who can. We have long highlighted that many who cannot afford a solicitor – including poverty-hit families – have fallen through the justice gap as they have not been eligible for legal aid because of the ungenerous means test.
We therefore welcome the proposed changes as a substantial step in the right direction. They should result in legal aid being available to more of the people who so desperately need it when faced with legal issues ranging from domestic abuse to homelessness to being accused of a crime.
The proposals reflect many of the points raised in our research on the way in which the means test is assessed, and we have found the engagement process with the Ministry of Justice on this topic to have been a positive one.
We do however have some concerns, including on universal credit, where the proposed changes are likely to create unnecessary bureaucracy.
Being eligible for legal advice is one thing, being able to access it is another with the number of both criminal and civil legal aid firms having almost halved since 2007.
Our research on civil legal aid deserts and our heatmaps identifying ageing and increasingly scarce duty solicitors show there are many parts of the country where access to justice is in peril.
The government is also announcing welcome, overdue investment in the criminal legal aid system but must take action to ensure there are enough solicitors available to undertake civil legal aid cases in the long-term.
We will examine the proposals in detail and plan to repeat our research with Professor Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University to ensure the changes do increase eligibility to receive legal aid for those who most need it.”