March 2024 - Law centres play a vital role in the provision of civil legal aid. In our comprehensive submission to the Ministry of Justice’s Review of Civil Legal Aid we outline our main concerns and recommendations to fix a broken system so that access to justice is fair and equal.

As a community law centre, we’re using our legal knowledge and expertise to help build a more equal society. Our mission is to activate rights in the communities by ensuring access to justice. But a lack of investment in the civil justice sector over many years, coupled with passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), has had a catastrophic impact on access to justice for individuals with social welfare legal problems. In the context of a longstanding programme of austerity, the pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis, the legal aid system is unsustainable in its current form and is failing those most in need

CELC provides advice and representation in a wide range of social welfare fields including Family, Community Care, Housing and Debt, Immigration and Asylum, Employment and Discrimination, Public Law and Welfare Benefits. We hold civil legal aid contracts to deliver casework in Coventry and Birmingham in these seven fields and further contracts to operate the Housing Duty Solicitor Advice and Representation Scheme at Coventry Combined Court and the new Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service. 

In addition to our publicly-funded casework, CELC’s casework capacity is increased by solicitor supervised one-off advice  clinics, casework clinics and Legal Aid Exceptional Case Funding application clinics at three local universities. We also deliver holistic support, and early advice and intervention work for particularly vulnerable clients, using an experienced team of ‘wraparound’ specialist caseworkers/advocates/paralegals.

At Central England Law Centre, only 20% of our income comes from legal aid

We have to seek funding from alternative sources to ensure clients receive a holistic service that not only helps them access their rights but also builds their understanding of where they can use legal rights to protect themselves in the future. The woman who believes her only choice is to continue to be raped by her husband to avoid risking becoming street homeless with her childrenThe vulnerable man trafficked to the UK by unscrupulous agents only to be exploited, then left alone and destitute. The child raised in care cast adrift by their corporate parent as they enter adulthood. The desperate family fleeing war without anything.  

Many individuals from the communities CELC serves experience poverty and multiple disadvantage. CELC frequently represents victims of domestic abuse, individuals threatened with homelessness, the ‘working poor’, individuals with disabilities or mental health conditions, carers, children (including those subject to care proceedings, those who have been subjected to torture and/or trafficking, and those whose families are destitute), care leavers, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and individuals who are otherwise vulnerable.

We believe access to justice is a fundamental right for all. But barriers and restrictions to legal aid in its current form mean the current legal aid model is not fit for purpose. Those living on the brink of poverty, those most impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, those facing crisis after crisis are those most in need of social welfare lawyersYet too often they are excluded from the legal system and when they find themselves facing legal issues they are unable to navigate it on their own.

Given our size, and the breadth of our social welfare civil legal aid work, CELC is well placed to understand the extensive problems besetting the civil justice sector and to proffer experienced-based solutions. 

Read our submission

CELC's key recommendations:

Civil Legal Aid fee rates must be increased to ensure work is paid fairly and is financially viable for providers. 
Civil Legal Aid financial eligibility levels must be amended to ensure the poorest do not face overly burdensome requirements to demonstrate their destitution and that those who are unable to afford private fee rates have access to specialist legal advice to resolve their legal problems correctly and efficiently.
Scope of work in all fields where Legal Aid is still available should be expanded to allow specialist practitioners to take a more holistic approach to tackling complex multi-faceted legal problems earlier.
Law Centres already play a pivotal role in undertaking extensive early specialist triage, early specialist advice work, crisis prevention and emergency representation work for the most disadvantaged sectors of society - who are often least able to navigate legal processes alone. CELC would therefore, at the very least, welcome a partial remodelling of Civil Legal Aid to enable Law Centres to undertake this early specialist work and to be paid fairly (at a competitive and viable rate) for doing so. 
Civil Legal Aid processes and procedures including processes for (i) establishing financial eligibility, (ii) applying for Public Funding Certificates and Exceptional Case Funding and (iii) billing must be streamlined, simplified and de-bureaucratised so practitioners - who have demonstrated competence to deliver efficient Legal Aid services in a competitive tender process - do not spend disproportionate amounts of unpaid time away from substantive Legal Aid casework in completing administrative tasks. 
Legal Aid Agency delays in administrating key functions such as determining funding applications and processing bills/payments must be addressed to enable practitioners to progress cases efficiently and to ensure cashflow/financial sustainability of practices and not for profit providers. 
Civil Legal Aid audit processes must be reviewed to ensure they are less punitive and that the focus shifts from being a mechanism for identifying administrative mistakes, to a means of checking the quality of legal advice and compliance with wider regulatory standards. 
Steps must be taken to encourage young lawyers into the social welfare Legal Aid sector to tackle the current recruitment and retention crisis and to ensure Civil Legal Aid remains available in the future.
Pending conclusion of RoCLA, CELC supports the Law Society’s call for an immediate interim 15% increase in Legal Aid funding rates to ensure the sector is stable enough in the short term to continue to provide access to justice routes for individuals who cannot afford private fee rates, until such time as the sector can be stabilised.
Funding to support vital investment in the Civil Legal Aid sector could be raised through introducing a ‘social welfare’ levy on Practising Certificates/Authorisation to Practice applications across the legal advice sector. Alternatively, a small tax on commercial fees/private fee earnings above a specified threshold could be introduced.