Following the general election in May 2010 the newly elected Conservative-led administration set out a number of radical reforms to Justice in Britain.
The Coalition agreement which was signed by the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the days following tense negations set out how the government of 2010-2015 would reform justice and end the “compensation culture” following an 18% rise in the number of people claiming personal injury compensation.
As the Government continue with their budget cutting programme Bott and Co’s senior partner, David Bott warns that it is the least well off that are going to be hit the hardest by the cuts to the justice budget and these reforms are an end to restorative justice.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was given Royal Assent on May 1st 2012 and came into effect on 1st April 2013, however this legislation was to be no April fools. Part 2 of LASPO sets out the new rules on referral fees which are paid by lawyers who take on new cases, by prohibiting referral fees law firms are going to struggle to maintain a stream of cases and end the access to justice that people deserve if they’ve been involved in an accident.
The aim of LASPO is to cut the amount of legal aid However, the legislation is far from perfect and has been scarcely welcomed by law firms
The aim of LASPO is to cut the amount of legal aid that is on offer to people in England and Wales and make justice work. However, the legislation is far from perfect and has been scarcely welcomed by law firms. The way personal injury claims are dealt with are fundamentally changing and LASPO is denying people access to justice.
The Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling gave a speech exactly a year on from LASPO receiving Royal Assent in which he said that the government “are turning the tide on the compensation culture. It’s pushing up the cost of insurance, and making it more expensive to drive a car or organise an event. It’s time the whole system was rebalanced.”
When the LASPO Bill was going through Parliament, David Bott, President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers at the time commented;
“Cutting legal aid for medical injuries at the same time as restricting ‘no win, no fee’ is a savage blow for patients whose lives may have been shattered by their injuries. The drive to cut costs by forcing injured people to give up part of their compensation to pay legal fees is unfair, unjust and unwarranted. People don’t choose to be injured, but when negligence happens, the guilty party – the losing defendant – must surely be held fully to account.”
The Ministry of Justice face overall cuts of 25% and the legislation that has been passed into law will have a significant impact, which has led to Graying stating that he “will not be afraid to reconsider” aspects of LASPO “if it proves that what we [the Government] have done has created a major problem”.
Cutting legal aid for medical injuries at the same time as restricting ‘no win, no fee’ is a savage blow for patients whose lives may have been shattered by their injuries.
The legal aid bill stands at £2.2 billion, but the government plans to cut £350 million and LASPO will support the Government’s ability to do that. It was announced by the MoJ in April 2013 that further savings of up to £220 million could be made each year by 2018/2019, and these savings would come from effectively means-testing legal aid and making criminals pay for their own trials.
It is clear that this legislation is going to hit the personal injury and law industry hard as LASPO will prohibit referral fees from being paid and received by law firms. Up until LASPO, anybody was entitled to some legal aid – whether it be for a solicitor when somebody has been arrested or legal aid to get a divorce. It was not as means tested as it is going to now be.
Who Will Be Affected By The Legislation?
It is the poorest in society that are going to struggle to get legal aid as people won’t be able to afford legal representation. The ban on referral fees and increasing the claims limit from £1000 to £5000 will hit most law firms hard as the majority of personal injury cases are valued at less than £5000. This means that if you have an accident or are entitled to damages and it is valued at less than £5000 you won’t be able to have a law firm represent you – you would have to put a value on your injury and represent yourself.
Cutting legal aid would stop access to justice and “undermine the rule of law”
The Government have also said that legal aid will only be available where legal proceedings are absolutely necessary. Writing in the foreword for the new business plan for the newly created Legal Aid Agency which has replaced the Legal Services Commission, the Lord Chancellor wrote that through LASPO;
“We will ensure that legal aid is focused on the most important cases for individuals in society, for example when serious criminal charges are brought or children are potentially being taken into care. But legal aid will no longer be available where legal help is not absolutely necessary.”
Why Are The Reforms Needed?
The government’s decision to cut legal aid by £350 million per year has received widespread criticism from lawyers and protections groups such as the Action to Justice Foundation who warn that the “devastating” legal aid cuts will have a “major effect on individuals and families facing legal problems.”
The legislation has also been criticised by the President of the Supreme Court in the UK, Lord Neuberger who wrote an article criticising the legislation and gave an interview to the BBC in which he warned that cutting legal aid would stop access to justice and “undermine the rule of law”. He went on to criticise Ministers who attack judges by saying that such Ministers “undermine” public confidence as judges cannot and should not respond to the criticism.
The Bar Council, Solicitors’ Regulation Authority and the Law Society have also warned the government about the impact LASPO is going to have on the law industry in England and Wales.