Chris Grayling’s 2013 cuts slashed the legal aid budget by a third – £751 million. Jon Robins examines the toll this is taking on people’s everyday lives.
When I speak to lorry driver Trevor Stephens, he is negotiating the M4 on a return journey to visit his children.
His life, he tells me, is a logistical nightmare.
His former partner of 20 years is applying for a court order to prevent him from seeing her. He has been homeless for the past 18 months, after she applied for his name to be struck off their council house tenancy.
So Trevor lives in his lorry.
At the end of the day, he parks up in a lay-by or on an industrial estate outside Bury St Edmunds where the kids live with their mother. He has three of his four children for eight nights a month, and the eldest lives with her boyfriend. When it’s his turn, he books a family room at the nearby Travelodge “or wherever’s cheapest”.
She told me: ‘You can do it one of two ways. Plead not guilty and wait for a court date or plead guilty and be home today’. I pleaded guilty. I was out the same day.Trevor Stephens
I met Trevor as part of my research for the investigative project ‘Justice in a time of Austerity‘, looking at the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts.
Since last October, I have been interviewing people up and down the country about their experiences of the justice system.
I was introduced to Trevor by a lawyer at the Suffolk Law Centre in Ipswich.
He is unlucky to find himself in a ‘legal aid advice desert’ – an area of the country where help is not available through legal aid or where there is only one provider locally. The definition comes from the Law Society, which reckons that almost a third of legal aid areas in England and Wales now have one or no local legal aid housing advice providers.
Suffolk’s image of rural prosperity belies serious legal need.
According to figures from the End Child Poverty campaign published last year, in two constituencies – Ipswich and Waveney – almost 30% of children are considered to be living in poverty. Suffolk also happens to be an immigration legal aid advice desert.
The county is a striking illustration of the desertification of our advice sector: there is not a single legally aided housing lawyer and barely any family lawyers willing to advise people like Trevor, who has complex and urgent legal needs.
Over the past 12 months, Trevor has had two six-week spells in prison for breaching a restraining order. He insists he isn’t violent.
On his account, his ex is an alcoholic with long-term mental health problems who has made a series of false allegations against him. He admits to breaching bail but only because, he says, she initiated contact by text message, begging him to come over because she was scared of being beaten up by her new boyfriend and, on a second occasion, threatening suicide by driving her car into a wall.
Trevor has the texts on his mobile phone, as well as messages from his children calling on their dad for help because of concerns about their mother’s condition. But, he tells me, no one has been sufficiently interested – not the police, social services or the courts – to check out his side of the story.
Until recently, the only legal advice he had received had been from a duty lawyer when he was remanded.
He recalls: “She told me: ‘You can do it one of two ways. Plead not guilty and wait for a court date or plead guilty and be home today’. I pleaded guilty. I was out the same day.”
It was advice he has come to regret.
“Everyone tells me, I was stupid,” he says. “I agree. But what am I supposed to do?”
It was Trevor’s probation officer who directed him to the Suffolk Law Centre, a tiny oasis in an otherwise barren expanse.
The latest addition to the 43-strong law centre network, it was set up 12 months ago and born out of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. A small team of 12 staff work across both charities and the law centre draws on 100 volunteers – mainly local lawyers who staff clinics in family, employment, housing, immigration and personal injury advice.
The 2013 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) removed entire swathes of social welfare law. That there are any new law centres post-LASPO is nothing short of a miracle.
The legal aid cuts slashed the legal aid budget by a third – £751 million. Up until then, legal aid would typically account for 40% of a law centre’s income, with 40% from local authorities. Since 2013, the income of law centres has halved and 11 have been forced to close.
A ‘legal aid advice desert’ is an area of the country where help is not available through legal aid or where there is only one provider locally.
According to the director of legal services, Audrey Ludwig, the Suffolk Law Centre’s funding is “precarious”, coming from a range of project grants with little core funding and no legal aid. “We are a sticking plaster. We have waiting lists of several months,” she tells me.
Carol Ward, a solicitor with a background in childcare law, works at the law centre on Wednesdays and Thursdays offering discrimination law advice and volunteers in its family law clinic on Tuesdays, which was where she met Trevor.
His is an extreme case, but it’s not unusual.
Family legal advice was removed from the legal aid scheme by LASPO, except where there are allegations of domestic violence.
“I get a lot of dads coming in where a year or two has passed without seeing their child and I always ask ‘why?’” Ward explains.
“Most often it’s the prospect of going to court by themselves. They are too anxious to do it. It’s about trying to reassure them and explaining that it’s really important not to leave it too long because the court will then say ‘where have you been?’. The relationship with the child is damaged hugely by such a long gap. But, I understand why it happens.”
The notion of a legal aid advice desert is a misleading concept.
It suggests that outside of the ‘deserts’ there is proper coverage, but that’s not the case. New research into the market for legal aid in immigration advice published today by immigration and asylum barrister Jo Wilding demonstrates this.
According to Wilding’s research – which draws on her PhD – the fee for asylum work is lower than the amount it costs for the lawyer to do the work properly. The average cost is actually double the fee and lawyers who insist on providing a high-quality service lose money on every case they take on.
Quality solicitors’ firms committed to this complex work develop financially rational strategies to stay in the game.
For example, they might end up subsidising legal aid work with privately paid work (and not-for-profit agencies do so from charitable or grant funding) or prioritise certain areas of work and drop others.
According to Wilding, for a first-time asylum applicant there is “virtually no chance of being taken on by a high-quality representative” because they cannot afford to do the work. Then, there are the firms who aren’t bothered about quality – “the sausage factories”, to use report’s terminology – as long as there is enough money in the fee to make it worth their while.
Suffolk is a striking illustration of the desertification of our advice sector: there is not a single legally aided housing lawyer and barely any family lawyers.
The threadbare economics of legal aid mean that, even in parts of the country where there are multiple providers, vulnerable clients still can’t access decent legal advice which leads to – what Jo Wilding calls – legal advice “droughts”.
Suffolk Law Centre is trying to plug the gaps in the county, but the system isn’t helping.
It recently attempted to apply for an immigration contract only to be informed by the Legal Aid Agency that there was no ‘established need’ for such advice in the area.
Last year, the centre won a contract for a much needed housing lawyer. It was the only organisation to tender. The contract was conditional upon the centre being able to recruit a supervising housing lawyer with three years’ experience. The law centre has advertised three times but, so far, not managed to find a suitable candidate to fill the position.
“It’s a sad reflection of the state of sector,” Ludwig says.
A longer version of this article is featured in the latest Proof magazine. Buy a copy here.