The legal aid system is in “crisis”, with fewer people than ever before having access to justice, lawyers fear.
The “hostile” culture which favours rejecting funding applications means the public are struggling to get the legal representation they need and the problem is getting worse, it is claimed.
The 70th anniversary of legal aid, introduced on July 30 1949 to help pay for representation in court proceedings, comes amid growing calls for an urgent overhaul of the system, which professionals claim is floundering amid steep cuts and a raft of errors when handling applications.
In the first three months of this year the amount of money spent on legal aid in criminal cases dropped and the number of applications for help paying for representation in civil cases rose, according to Government figures.
Richard Miller, the head of legal aid at the professional body for solicitors, the Law Society of England and Wales, said since cuts were made in 2013 many were in the “ludicrous situation” where they cannot get the help they need.
There are “major issues” in funding for criminal cases and civil proceedings such as hearings in family court, but particularly for inquests, he said, leaving many members of the public to navigate complex proceedings by representing themselves.
Speaking to the PA news agency, he said: “It’s definitely limiting access to justice.
“There are massive problems caused by under-funding. The Government really hasn’t got to grips with the scale of the crisis.”
He said there had been “no acknowledgement” of the scale of the problem by the Government.
He also hit out at the state-sponsored Legal Aid Agency (LAA) – which decides whether to grant funding requests – saying it had become “much more hostile over the years” but had “never been great”.
Mr Miller said: “The underlying premise of legal aid when it was brought in was that anybody should be able to defend their rights, regardless of their circumstances.
“That principle is as good today as it was when the system was first introduced.”
But it was vital that access to justice was not prevented, he added, as he called for an urgent independent review of the system overall, and an overhaul of rates paid to lawyers.
Richard Atkins QC, chairman of the Bar Council, noted that legal aid spending fell by 37% from 2010/2011 to £1.6 billion in 2017/2018. He said: “You can’t have that sort of cut and maintain the quality that you had however many years before.
“It is a lot less than the figure that was spent and all of the problems that we see – people unrepresented, people having to pay vast amounts of money that in the past they would have had assistance with, people being acquitted having faced charges brought by the state and then not getting their money back, people deciding they will turn to unqualified people (for legal help) who may not assist them in the way they should be assisted – that can’t be a good thing.”
He said there is a feeling among the public that families of terror attack victims should be entitled to legal aid so they can get the best out of an inquest into their loved ones’ deaths. He noted that lawyers will act on a pro-bono basis and are cutting their rates to assist but “it is a sticking plaster, it is something that shouldn’t being happening and we would argue that the state should be providing funds.”
Earlier this month the then justice minister responsible for legal aid, Paul Maynard, pledged in Parliament to look at inquest funding for families after criticism of the refusal to provide funding for victims’ relatives at the London Bridge terror attack inquest.
It prompted campaigners to reiterate calls for automatic funding for grieving relatives facing inquests where state bodies may have played a part in a loved one’s death, or when the circumstances are of huge public concern.
At present the money is rigorously means tested, forcing families to face “intrusive and unnecessary” questions about their finances.
Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, a charity which supports families facing such proceedings, said it was “inexcusable” and “absolutely shameful” the funding was refused, as she called for the Government to tackle the “unlevel playing field” and “inequality of arms” in the support available, adding: “In the last six months we have gone backwards.”
Ben Bennett, whose 19-year-old daughter Sophie was found hanged at a west London psychiatric facility deemed “unsafe and chaotic”, said his funding battle with the LAA ahead of her inquest was “horrific” and the system was “crass and cruel”.
Merry Varney, head of the inquest team at Leigh Day solicitors who represented the family of Molly Russell, said the Ministry of Justice response to the crisis was “woefully poor” and there was an overall “culture of refusal” at the LAA.
The agency originally denied the family funding for the inquest into the death of their 14-year-old daughter, who killed herself in 2017 after viewing disturbing material online, because the matter “was not of wider public interest”.
Ms Varney said the current system “makes a mockery” of the whole principle, adding: “It’s a really awful state of affairs.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says it wants to issue new guidance to help improve people’s understanding and awareness of the availability of legal aid at inquests.
It notes that around 65% of applications for exceptional case funding inquests are granted. It wants to help applicants by updating and simplifying exceptional case funding forms.
The MoJ also notes there is already a significant onus on a coroner in terror attack cases to uncover systematic failings, regardless of whether the victims families receive legal aid.
An MoJ spokesman said: “Access to justice is a fundamental pillar of society.<br>That is why we spent a sixth of our total budget on legal aid last year, are investing up to £5 million in innovative technologies to help people access support wherever they are, and are doubling funding for litigants in person for the next two years.
“In addition we are expanding the scope of legal aid in some areas, and reviewing both the means test and criminal legal aid.”
LAA chief executive Shaun McNally was replaced by Jane Harbottle, former head of case management, in June. Both declined requests to be interviewed.