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Inflation warning over legal aid reforms

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(25 May 2023)

Means test reforms will see over six million more vulnerable people eligible for legal aid, the government has announced. But the government’s long awaited decision has already prompted warnings on legal aid provision and inflation.

The government finally published its response to means test proposals today. The consultation closed last June and the government’s response was supposed to appear last autumn.

Changes include raising the gross income threshold for civil legal aid for a single person from £31,884 to £34,950 and removing the £545 monthly cap on allowable housing costs. The upper gross income threshold for magistrates’ court representation will rise from £22,325 to £34,950

Law Society president Lubna Shuja said the eligibility increase is a step in the right direction. However, she pointed out that thresholds have not been updated in line with inflation since 2009.

A report published by the Law Society last May warned that the proposed means test thresholds would be years out of date by the time they are changed.

The report’s author, Professor Donald Hirsch, said: ‘The original proposal to base cost of living allowances on 2019/20 expenditure levels has been modified by a pledge to reconsider their level before implementation, after 2021/22 spending data is published later this year. 

‘This is welcome, but risks taking very little account of recent inflation, which only took off in early 2022. Prices rose by less than 5% between 2019/20 and 2021/22. They have since risen by a further 15%. And the proposed system of reviewing allowances only three years after implementation means that they are now unlikely to change again before 2027. In finalising the allowances, therefore, I hope the ministry will continue to show commitment to following the evidence, taking account of current and not out-of-date living costs.’

The generous eligibility will only make a meaningful difference if people can find a solicitor, Shuja said.

‘Our legal aid desert maps and duty solicitor heatmaps have demonstrated there is an acute crisis in legal aid provision. Large areas of the country have no access to face-to face civil legal aid services and police station duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales are in peril.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)