Last week, the Ministry of Justice has cited Law Centres as one of several sources of help available outside of legal aid for representing children in legal proceedings. This was done to justify restricting legal aid for some children by a residence test – one that the High Court has recently found to be ‘unlawful’, ‘discriminatory’ and unjustifiable.
We are grateful for Government’s confidence in Law Centres and their services. However, we find its statement objectionable, for several reasons.
Law Centres have always opposed Government’s proposed residence test for legal aid, and have supported the Public Law Project’s Judicial Review that prompted the High Court’s intervention in this matter. We share the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ concern that all children should be exempt from the residence test. It is unhelpful that in its response (Cm 8936) Government should adopt such a recalcitrant line in the face of JCHR and the High Court, especially when its position also has rather feeble financial evidence to support it.
We find it disingenuous that, having cut access to justice provisions so extensively, the Ministry of Justice should point to them as alternatives to civil legal aid when this suits its needs. They mention Exceptional Case Funding, which was intended as a ‘safety net’ mechanism, but ECF was granted in only six non-inquest cases in 2013-14, paling in comparison to earlier projections of at least 3,000 cases helped annually.
This disingenuity is particularly striking when it comes to Law Centres. Government cuts to civil legal aid have destabilised Law Centres, causing them to lose vital expert staff and reduce services. The cuts have also led directly or indirectly to the closure of one in six of our members. Despite its flaws, Law Centres have kept faith with the civil legal aid system and now make up nearly half of charities providing legal aid services.
It is effectively misleading the public to suggest that legal assistance, including Law Centres’ help, is still as widely available as it had been before legal aid cuts. Government must acknowledge its role in causing the current scarcity, as well as its responsibility for providing adequate help to people who could not otherwise afford it.
For over 40 years it has been our mission to provide legal assistance to disadvantaged and vulnerable people, but current civil justice policies are hindering not helping this. If the Ministry of Justice is serious about supporting Law Centres to help people regardless of legal aid eligibility, we invite them to back this up with action and offer Law Centres direct financial support.