JCHR report on the Government’s legal aid proposals

On 13 December 2013, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published the report of its inquiry into the implications for access to justice of certain of the Government’s proposals to reform legal aid.

The report summary states:

This Report scrutinises three Government proposals that amend the provision of legal aid funding: the proposed introduction of a residence test for civil legal aid claimants, so as to limit legal aid to those with a “strong connection” with the UK; the proposed restriction on the scope of criminal legal aid available to prisoners; and the proposal that legal aid should be removed for all cases assessed as having “borderline” prospects of success.

We are surprised that the Government does not appear to accept that its proposals to reform legal aid engage the fundamental common law right of effective access to justice, including legal advice when necessary. We believe that there is a basic constitutional requirement that legal aid should be available to make access to court possible in relation to important and legally complex disputes subject to means and merits tests and other proportionate limitations.

We are disappointed by the Lord Chancellor’s suggestion that we ought to have reported on these proposals earlier. The Government’s modified proposals were published in September and we have reported on them as soon as possible. We regret that the Secretary of State was not prepared to wait for our Report before proceeding further. We are not convinced that there is sufficient urgency behind these proposals, nor certainty about their human rights implications, to justify the Government in proceeding so quickly with bringing them into force.

Equality and Diversity Forum response and additional information

The Equality and Diversity Form (EDF) submitted its response in September 2013.

Rights of Women submitted evidence to JCHR on 21 August 2013.

Information about the legal aid proposals and responses from the Equality and Diversity Forum and other organisations is available on the EDF website.

On 28 August 2013, the Law Society Gazette reported that the Lord Chancellor had refused a request from the JCHR chair asking for the following assurance:

… that the Government will not introduce any measures giving effect to its proposals before the Committee has had an opportunity to report to both houses. The proposals raise some human rights issues of fundamental significance for the right of access to justice and the rule of law, and in the Committee’s view it would be inappropriate to introduce such‘far-reaching changes without first affording Parliament the opportunity to subject them to thorough pre-legislative scrutiny.

Dr Hwyel Frances MP, Chair of the JCHR, wrote to the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP on 15 July 2013.