In 2012, as part of the cost-cutting measures associated with its attempts to reduce the national deficit, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). This legislation sought to reduce spending within the sector whilst simultaneously returning legal aid to “first principles” by redefining which legal procedures would be considered eligible for government aid as well as who would be entitled to access support, with the professed goal of ensuring that resources were focussed on “those most in need.” As a result, several areas of legal practise – including family, employment and welfare – were almost entirely removed from the purview of legal aid. The aim of this was purportedly to discourage unnecessary litigation, thereby motivating people to seek solutions to their problems outside of the court system.
Some seven years later, reports by the Ministry of Justice as well as third parties such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission have concluded that “LASPO has had the effect of preventing necessary litigation, rather than only discouraging unnecessary litigation.” The EHRC found that the inability of individuals to access legal aid led to severe emotional distress, the aggravation of physical conditions, financial hardship and the incurrence of debt, housing insecurity and familial instability for those affected. Issues which could potentially have been solved relatively expeditiously through access to legal aid become more complex and intractable the longer they remain unaddressed, whilst also being compounded by other social, financial or medical problems. The risk of falling into this downward spiral that some have argued that the LASPO cuts represent a false economy, since the costs deferred in the legal aid sector may well be paid out several times over once affected individuals are forced to depend on frontline services such as the NHS.
The withdrawal of funding from dedicated legal aid practices and charities has produced a profound upheaval in the legal aid ecosystem, creating a landscape characterised by a complex, uneven web of larger and smaller bodies offering varying levels of advice and support for a range of legal issues, with provision fluctuating significantly from region to region. In general, the sector has experienced a loss of expertise and institutional memory, whilst a lack of central oversight means that achieving an overall perspective on what forms of support are available where and to whom is itself a challenging prospect. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that potential service users may struggle to find help with their legal problems, or even to access the support which will allow them to define these problems in the first place. This is where Etic Lab comes in. We aim to use our expertise in the application of AI and data analytic technologies to the social field to investigate the feasibility of developing tools which will allow us both to produce a legible map of the contemporary legal aid sector as well as to help service users find the support they need within this space. To this end, we are committed to engaging both with existing research and the experience of providers and users in order to deepen our understanding of the sector and to ensure that our suggestions respond as broadly as possible to the issues currently facing the organisation and provision of legal aid.