2nd May 2014

At Ben Hoare Bell we have written about and campaigned extensively against the cuts to legal aid, which have left countless vulnerable people without access to public funding to help them in cases affecting some of the most important issues a person can face during their lifetime.

The government has insisted that these cuts will not affect those most significantly in need of help, saying that funding will be available to those who need legal representation to ensure that their right to a fair hearing is not breached – a right which is enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

One legal mechanism for this is by making an application for ‘exceptional funding’, which is available to people whose cases fall outside the scope of legal aid funding but who can otherwise demonstrate that they require legal assistance to ensure a right to a ‘fair hearing’.

When the government initially announced that exceptional funding would be available, this seemed like a promising way to ensure that individuals could get access to the representation that they needed. Disappointingly, this does not seem to have been the case. The Ministry of Justice has recently released statistics for the period from April 2013 (when the cuts first came into place) to March 2014.

The statistics show that in that period, 821 applications for exceptional funding have been made. Of those, only 8 have been granted: a success rate of 1%. None of the 204 applications made between January and March 2014 have been successful.

This is a shocking statistic which surely demonstrates that the exceptional funding provision is almost meaningless in practice. Although the details of the applications themselves have not been released, it seems highly unlikely that only 1% of the applications made will have been serious enough to demonstrate a need for legal representation. What seems more likely is that the Ministry of Justice are applying the rules so strictly that it is practically impossible to make an application that meets their excessively stringent criteria. This surely means that many people’s Article 6 rights are being breached and those most desperately in need of legal representation are being left to fend for themselves as a direct result of the government’s cuts to legal aid.