What will the spending cuts mean for the rule of law and the administration of justice? We’ve had some insight into this in the past few weeks. With a further announcement due later this week on how 23% cuts to the £9.2 billion legal aid budget will be made, an altogether clearer picture can shortly be expected to emerge.
Limiting eligibility and the scope of funding for immigration cases?
Over the course of the weekend the Telegraph reported:
‘The Ministry of Justice is planning a series of unprecedented cuts to Legal Aid. These include eliminating it for whole areas of civil litigation such as divorce cases, medical malpractice, employment tribunals, personal injury tribunals and immigration appeals’
This was also reported in yesterday’s Financial Times which observes:
‘… a wide range of civil cases will no longer be eligible for legal aid: areas that will be affected include divorce and immigration appeals’
Additionally a number of articles today report that the qualification threshold for legal aid is due to be raised. Those with assets (now including the value of homes) of more than £1000.00 will no longer qualify for legal aid (limit is currently £3000), and the 20% of weekly income that those who successfully claim legal aid contribute, is to be increased to 30% .
Slashing funding to local authorities
Whilst everyone’s attention is focused on the MOJ budget, the implementation of real time reductions of 28% to local authority budgets over the next four years can also be expected to bite. Local authority funding continues to represent an important source of funding for law centres and other organisations who often provide both advice and representation both in immigration cases themselves and to immigrants and others on related areas of concern. In recent years law centres appear to have been dropping like flies with Gateshead, Liverpool 8, Leicester, Rotherham, Lewisham, Enfield, Small Heath and Huntingdon Law Centres all having been forced to close. South Manchester Law Centre – according to some sources the only source of legal advice and representation for immigrants/asylum seekers in South Manchester could emerge as the next casualty in the absence of a successful legal aid tender/alternative funding. With cuts on the horizon to front line services, the ring-fencing funding of local authority funding for law centres starts to look increasingly shaky.
Making appellants pay
The MOJ paper Introducing fee charges for appeals in the Immigration and Asylum Chambers of the First- Tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal adds another missing piece in the administration of justice jigsaw. The Paper notes that the MOJ proposes ‘initially’ to recover 25 % of the full costs of the immigration and asylum appeals system from users of the system (the intention seems to be that this will rise over time.) In summary the proposals are to charge fees for entry clearance/leave to enter/leave to remain appeals, and not to refund them in the event of a success or withdrawal.
The paper proposes various exemptions for fees charges including for asylum seekers in receipt of asylum support/ those in the Detained Fast Track and those in receipt of legal aid. The size of the beneficiaries in the latter category however very much depends on the shape of the legal aid funding regime- this is yet to crystalise. In any event, with research e.g. by the Devon Law Centre showing that legal aid is incorrectly refused in some four out of five cases this is hardly cause for celebration.
Merger of the Tribunals Service with Court Service/closure of Courts
The MOJ Business Plan 2011-2015 refers to the merger of the Tribunals Service and the Court Service, whilst also noting its intention to close underutilised Courts – the MOJ consulted on the closure of 54 county courts in total. It also well known from a MOJ memo some time ago that the MOJ is proposing to axe somewhere in the region of 14,000 jobs though quite what impact this will have in terms of accessing remedies in immigration cases as yet remains unclear.
If the noises the press are making, and the measures we’ve glimpsed are anything to go, we should expect the ‘right of access to courts’ enshrined in the ECHR to take nothing short of a right kicking.