England: Victims of discrimination denied right to justice under legal aid system
Victims of discrimination in England and Wales are being denied their fundamental right to justice and perpetrators are going unchallenged because of failures in the legal aid system, the human rights watchdog has warned.
An inquiry into legal aid for victims of discrimination by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found that very few people are getting the representation they need in courts or tribunals.
Between 2013/14 and 2017/18, no workplace discrimination cases received legal aid funding for representation in the employment tribunal, and only one in 200 cases taken on by discrimination specialists received funding for representation in court.
The inquiry identified a number of barriers to representation, including rules which effectively limit funding to cases with high compensation awards, which it said fails to reflect that discrimination cases are often more about challenging unacceptable behaviour and upholding rights than obtaining financial awards.
The watchdog has called on the UK government to change its guidance to ensure that discrimination claims are not assumed to be simply a claim for damages.
It has also called for the government to produce specific guidance on exceptional case funding (ECF) for discrimination cases, noting that only ten applications were made for ECF for discrimination cases in a five year period and none were granted.
Meanwhile, the commission also said that the financial eligibility threshold should be changed to expand the number of people that receive legal aid and reinstate face-to-face legal advice for those who need it.
David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Legal aid was specifically set up to ensure that those who have been wronged, but cannot afford their own legal representation, can access justice.
“The threat of legal action is a powerful deterrent for perpetrators and makes it clear that society will not tolerate injustice.
“Challenging complex issues such as discrimination should never be a David vs Goliath battle, and the system is failing if individuals are left to fight cases themselves at an employment tribunal or in court.
“The current system is clearly in need of reform, and whilst we are pleased that the government is currently reviewing the legal aid process, it must implement our recommendations if the legal aid system is to deliver once again.”