SWLLC Response to the Review of Civil Legal Aid – Call for Evidence 

In our commitment to ensure access to justice for our communities, South West London Law Centres (SWLLC) has submitted a comprehensive response to the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence in the ongoing Review of Civil Legal Aid. As a key stakeholder in the provision of civil legal aid, we aim to highlight the urgent reforms needed to safeguard the future of legal aid services and ensure they meet the needs of the community. Legal aid is vital to effective access to justice and is one of the important societal tools that are used to relieve poverty and unlock blocked lives. 

Our submission addresses the critical challenges currently faced by the civil legal aid system, which, after more than a decade of austerity measures, is on the verge of collapse. The significant decrease in local private practices offering legal aid services, due to economic unviability, contrasts sharply with the growing demand for our services, which however hard we try, we cannot meet. This alarming trend underscores the need for immediate action to ensure that legal aid remains a viable option for both providers and those in need. 

To improve the civil legal aid system, we propose several key changes: 

Increase Fees and Remuneration: To ensure the economic viability of delivering legal aid services, it is crucial to adjust fees or remuneration to reflect current economic realities. This change is fundamental to addressing interconnected issues such as the recruitment and retention of qualified staff. Without this, nothing else can change. 

Streamline Audits and Reduce Bureaucracy: The current auditing process is overly burdensome. We advocate for the simplification of audits and the claiming process, which would alleviate the administrative strain on providers and ensure timely compensation for services rendered. 

Enhance IT Systems to Facilitate Access: Technology should be leveraged to simplify the legal aid application process, not hinder it. There’s a pressing need for IT systems that assist rather than obstruct individuals’ access to legal aid, especially in gathering necessary evidence for means testing. 

Expand the Scope of Legal Aid: Reflecting on the benefits of early legal advice, we call for a reconsideration of the scope of legal aid. Areas previously removed from coverage should be reinstated to ensure comprehensive support for those in need. 

Our response also sheds light on the specific challenges faced by residents across the six London boroughs we serve, as well as in Surrey. A glaring issue is the lack of specialised legal advice in areas such as housing, employment, immigration, and welfare benefits. The concept of “legal aid deserts” is a stark reality in regions like Surrey, where the absence of legal aid providers severely limits access to justice. Even when there are providers, access is severely limited.  

Furthermore, our findings reveal significant barriers to accessing legal aid, including the complexity of the application process and a widespread lack of awareness about legal aid eligibility and availability. To combat these issues, we propose targeted community outreach and education initiatives to demystify legal aid and make it more accessible to those in need. This needs to go hand in hand with adequate funding to increase the provider base. 

As we navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead, SWLLC remains dedicated to advocating for a civil legal aid system that is responsive, accessible, and equitable. Our submission to the Review of Civil Legal Aid is part of our strive towards ensuring better access to justice. By addressing the systemic issues plaguing the civil legal aid system, we can build a stronger foundation for the provision of essential legal services that our community needs.