On Tuesday the House of Commons Justice Committee sat to review the cuts in civil legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
The three witnesses giving evidence left MPs in no doubt of their concerns that litigants who relied on the support of professional McKenzie friends were exposing themselves to currently unregulated advisers increasingly filling the gap left by those who cannot afford the services of a solicitor.
McKenzie Friends provide informal legal advice to litigants without a solicitor or barrister. They do not require legal qualifications.
The witnesses were Bar Council Chairman Nicholas Lavender QC, Jenny Beck, who is Co-Chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group and Andrew Caplen, the Law Society’s Deputy Vice-President.
Steve Brine, the Conservative MP for Winchester described the current situation as a reliance on the ‘cult of the amateur.’
The Committee was told that since the since LASPO has come into force 1,520 applications have been made but only 69 granted. The Government had anticipated over 5,000. The witnesses said completion of the application forms takes too long, the scheme is complex and confusing and the Legal Aid Agency is not functioning as it should.
MPs on the Committee were alarmed at what they heard. Jeremy Corbyn MP described it was a ‘dangerous scenario’ and his Labour colleague, John McDonnell MP said: ‘It’s not a problem, it’s a nightmare.’
The Committee will produce a report before the end of 2014 but in the meantime will sit to take further evidence. There was no response from the Ministry of Justice or Justice Minister the Rt Hon Chris Grayling.