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Discrimination going unchallenged in legal aid system says the EHRC

19 June 2019

Victims of discrimination are being denied their fundamental right to justice because of the current legal aid system, according to a Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry published today.

The new EHRC report finds that people are facing unnecessary barriers to justice and vulnerable individuals are not being supported to bring discrimination claims.

The EHRC says:

“Our findings paint a troubling picture, with difficulties in accessing face-to-face advice, barriers for people trying to access telephone advice, a lack of funding for representation in the court or Employment Tribunal, and financial eligibility thresholds that leave even some people below the poverty line, unable to access legal aid.

There is recognition of some of these issues from Government and during our inquiry, the Ministry of Justice published its review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). We made a submission to the review setting out a number of recommendations.

… However, we remain concerned that victims of discrimination are not getting the help they need to enforce their rights and we would like to see the Government’s action plan implemented in a way that genuinely improves access to justice.”

This ECHR is also undertaking an enquiry to understand the experiences of disabled defendants or accused in the criminal justice system, to consider whether the needs of these defendants or accused are properly identified and whether adjustments are put in place to meet their needs, so they are able to take part fully in court processes

The ECHR report Access to legal aid for discrimination cases is available @ www.equalityhumanrights.com

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser says;

“DR UK welcomes the ECHR report and strongly supports its recommendations.

For example, with respect to telephone advice the EHRC stresses that the Government should:

  • satisfy itself that systems are in place to ensure compliance with the Equality Act 2010, and with human rights obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, by ensuring reasonable adjustments are put in place for every disabled person who requires them to access telephone advice.
  • satisfy itself that other service adaptations are made for anyone requiring them to access telephone advice; and
  • ensure that Gateway operators and specialist providers discuss the availability of adjustments and adaptations to each service user, at first contact and again at any point during the case if it becomes clear that the client needs additional support to access the service.

However, the ECHR also finds that while face-to-face advice is essential for some people to explain their issue and understand the advice they receive, the number of people being referred for face-to-face advice is extremely low.

For example, it cites a deaf service user with a cognitive impairment, mental health condition and a physical impairment explaining that: “I would have liked a face-to-face meeting because at least then you can see the person that’s dealing with it; you can ask questions that you probably wouldn’t think of over the telephone or when you were doing an email.”

For DR UK, effective advice provision must mean ensuring that face-to-face advice is a genuine option for anyone who needs or wants it.”

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