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Thousands of vulnerable Londoners are failed by the legal aid system

New report by justice charity Revolving Doors Agency estimates that the most vulnerable Londoners were unable to access any legal support for as many as 37,500 legal problems since the introduction legal aid cuts. The estimate1 is based on a recent survey of people who come into repeat contact with the criminal justice system, as a result of multiple non-violent offences (such theft or minor drug offences) driven by vulnerabilities such as mental ill health, homelessness and domestic abuse2.

The report coincides with the publication of the government’s long-awaited review of the legal aid system which highlights the need for improving support for most vulnerable in society so that the justice system is just, accessible and proportionate3.

The charity calls on the government to take into account huge disparities faced by people in the revolving door of crisis and crime in London. The research found that 4 in 5 received no legal support to protect themselves from domestic violence, and over half of people experiencing housing problems including serious disrepair and unlawful eviction had to fend for themselves. 

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of Revolving Doors Agency said:

“Our new research shows that the justice system is routinely failing thousands of the most vulnerable Londoners.  For example, lack of legal aid to challenge an unfair eviction can lead to homelessness - and we know homelessness can lead people to commit crimes to survive.

“We welcome that the government has recognised that people are no longer certain what legal aid they can receive and are taking action to improve legal education and access to information.  But the action plan doesn’t address the underlying issue that lack of legal advice and representation is leaving people in dangerous situations and crises.”

NOTES 

1. A survey with 30 people, based on a list of situations eligible for legal aid. Participants were asked to identify which one of these issues they had experienced in the past five years and which issues they had sought legal support for.

2. People in the revolving door are characterised by repeat low-level, nonviolent offences, such as theft and minor drug offences, linked to multiple underlying problems, including mental ill health, problematic substance use, homelessness and domestic abuse. Evidence from one national study which suggests there are at least 7,000 individuals experiencing a combination of substance misuse, offending, and homelessness across London each year.

3. Ministry of Justice has published its Post-Implementation Review of Part 1 of LASPO, alongside a separate review of legal aid for inquests and a Legal Support Action Plan setting out the Government’s ‘vision of a modern system of legal support’ and the steps it will take following the review of LASPO.

No justice in the capital?

This study of legal support gathers the perspectives of people in London with lived experience of the ‘revolving door’ of personal crisis and crime. We asked about their experiences of seeking assistance for cases that should be eligible for legal aid.

Legal aid cuts have meant that growing numbers of people struggle alone, managing multiple problems, navigating a complex justice system, and feeling ignored and abandoned. In our study, the 30 study participants experienced 173 civil legal problems in the last five years, but only sought legal support for 43. This means they did not seek legal support for at least three quarters of civil law cases - and the rate of accessing legal aid is even lower.

As a result of their experiences, many people in the revolving door feel let down by the legal profession and the justice system. Their lack of legal knowledge, social and digital exclusion, rejection for legal support and the knock-on contagious effect are significant barriers to accessing justice.

The Ministry of Justice has recently published its review of The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), along with a new strategy to deliver better support for people who experience legal problems. These recognise that more needs to be done to understand what works, when and for whom. The strategy focuses on early intervention to resolve problems before they escalate.

Aiming to place people at the heart of a new system for legal support, our briefing highlights ways of addressing the power imbalances. With greater legal education, early legal advice and legal aid, people in the revolving door could achieve equal justice in the capital and beyond.