Access to justice, including fair trials – UK Government assessment
There have been recent changes to improve access to legal aid, including the removal of the mandatory telephone gateway to access civil legal advice. But significant concerns remain about the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 on access to justice in England and Wales. Ongoing court modernisation may negatively affect participation for certain groups with protected characteristics. The coronavirus pandemic has placed significant strain on the court system and legal advice sector. Court closures and the rapid growth in online hearings have added to the challenges around case backlogs, accessible justice and the availability of legal advice.
- Despite recent changes to improve access to legal aid, concerns remain about the impact of LASPO, particularly for those with certain protected characteristics. These concerns include the inaccessibility of the Exceptional Case Funding scheme, the financial eligibility thresholds for legal aid, and unnecessary barriers to justice in discrimination claims.
- Applications for legal aid and expenditure on legal aid in England and Wales have increased very slightly since 2016, but are still lower than before LASPO came into force in 2013.
- A 2019 report of the Commission on Justice in Wales concluded that proper access to justice is not available in Wales due to legal aid cuts under LASPO, with major reform needed to the justice system.
- Access to advice services has been affected by the pandemic and the move to online services potentially disadvantages groups that are digitally excluded, including disabled and older people. Advice organisations and the legal aid sector in England and Wales face financial challenges, while demand for free advice is increasing.
- There is evidence that the needs of disabled defendants with certain impairments are not being met in the criminal justice system, with concerns in England and Wales that the Court Reform Programme could make it difficult for disabled defendants in particular to take part in criminal justice processes, as well as disadvantaging older people. There are concerns that court closures under the reform programme particularly disadvantage disabled people, women with the protected characteristic of pregnancy and maternity, and carers.
- The pandemic has placed the English and Welsh court system under unprecedented strain, increasing an already significant backlog of cases. The UK Government’s recovery plan includes actions to maintain the system’s operation, but the rapid expansion of online hearings raises concerns about effective participation, particularly for certain disabled people.
- Court closures in recent years, especially in rural areas, have created accessibility challenges that are made worse by reduced court operations during the pandemic.
- The UK Government is yet to fully implement most of the Lammy Review’s recommendations regarding racial bias and inequality in the criminal justice system.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on access to justice, including fair trials.