COMMONS

Civil legal aid cuts "failed to target help where needed"

12 March 2015

The Government achieved its aim of substantially reducing the civil legal aid budget but the Justice Committee's report concludes that it had failed to target legal aid to those who need it most and had not discouraged unnecessary litigation at public expense and could not show it was delivering better overall value for money for the taxpayer.

These were the Government’s four objectives for the civil legal aid reforms in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and this was the conclusion of the House of Commons Justice Committee in its review of the legislation.

Chair's comments

Committee Chair, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, said:

"The urgency of the financial situation in which this country found itself in 2010 meant that the MoJ was faced with difficult decisions: making £2 billion of savings from a budget of £9.8 billion was clearly a very challenging target and it was successfully achieved.

But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.

Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research, a better evidence base to work from, and better public information about the reforms. It is vitally important that the MoJ work to remedy this from now on, so that a review of the policy can be undertaken."

Significant underspend

Since the reforms came into effect, there has been a significant underspend in the civil legal aid budget because the MoJ failed to ensure that those who are eligible for legal aid are able to access it. This has been partly been due to a lack of public information, including information about the Civil Legal Advice telephone gateway for debt advice, and the Committee recommends that the MoJ take prompt steps to redress this.

The Committee also concludes that the exceptional cases funding scheme has not worked as Parliament intended. It was supposed to act as a safety net, protecting access to justice for the most vulnerable. However, insufficient weight has been given to access to justice in the grant-making process and the Committee heard about a number of cases where it was surprising that such funding was not granted.

The Committee expects the MoJ to react rapidly to ensure that the scheme fulfils Parliament’s intention that the most vulnerable people are able to access legal assistance.

Necessary evidence

Although private family law was largely removed from the scope of legal aid, those who can provide evidence of domestic violence are still eligible. The Committee welcomes the MoJ’s efforts to ensure that healthcare professionals provide victims with the necessary evidence, but it remains concerned that a large proportion of victims do not have any of the types of evidence required, and about the strict requirement that evidence be from no more than 2 years ago, which the Committee considers should be a matter over which the Legal Aid Agency has discretion.

The inquiry found that the reforms have led to reduced capacity in the for-profit and not-for-profit legal advice and assistance sectors. Despite a warning from the Committee in a previous Report that advice deserts might be created, the Ministry of Justice did not carry out research into the geographical provision of legal advice before the reforms or the impact of the changes. The Committee recommends that work to rectify this should begin immediately.

Unrepresented litigants

The Government’s reforms have led to an increase in the number and a change in the profile of litigants in person: increasingly these are people who have no choice but to represent themselves, and who may thus have difficulty in doing so effectively: although many tribunals are accustomed to dealing with unrepresented litigants the courts have to expend more resources in order to assist them.

There has also been a sharp unintended reduction in the use of mediation. The Committee concludes that the end of compulsory mediation assessment, the removal of solicitors from the process and the lack of clear advice all contributed to the problem. However, the MoJ has acted swiftly to remedy this by setting up the Family Mediation Taskforce and accepting many, although not all, of its recommendations.

Value for money

The MoJ has not been able to demonstrate that it has achieved value for money for the taxpayer. Although significant savings have been achieved, efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have focused on intervention aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, rather than on prevention.

This has created knock-on costs, either because cases become more serious so become eligible for legal aid, such as house repossession cases, or because costs are shifted from the legal aid budget to other public services rather than reduced overall. The Committee believes that the MoJ must quantify these if it is to achieve its objective of better value for money.

Further information

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