In a report published today, the Justice Select Committee says that the legal aid system in England and Wales – one of the most expensive in the world – needs reform, but that changes proposed by the Government present a severe challenge to those involved with the justice system.
The legal aid budget currently costs taxpayers over £2 billion a year. The Government's proposed reforms are intended to reduce the cost of the system by £350 million a year, largely by removing certain areas of law from the scope of legal aid. The Committee argues that some of those scope changes will need further refinement and suggests other areas where the Government might be able to make savings.
Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Alan Beith MP, said:
"There is a cross-party consensus on the need to reduce the cost of the legal aid budget, which is one of the most expensive in the world.
Concerns remain, however, that there is the potential for vulnerable groups of people to be disproportionately hit by the changes.
The Government’s proposals need considerable further refinement before moving forward, and alternative ways of achieving savings should be examined."
The report warns that there is insufficient information about the likely impact of some of the changes, and many of those involved are unprepared for them. The Government hopes that the not-for-profit sector will step in to provide services, but many of the organisations concerned have said they will not have the funding to do so.
The Committee also calls on the Government to reconsider its use of domestic violence as a gateway to legal aid funding in family law cases and expresses concerns that the proposals could create a perverse incentive to make false accusations of domestic violence. It calls on the Government to bring forward alternative proposals by which to focus family law legal aid on the most deserving cases.
The MPs urge the Government to look at other possible ways of reducing legal aid costs. For example, the number of decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found at tribunal to be incorrect is high and is singled out by the MPs as an area where savings could be made.
There has been a recent dramatic increase in the number of social security appeals, from 242,800 appeals received in 2008–09 to 339,000 appeals in 2009–10 and further increases are expected. Recent figures show that in 34% of cases cleared at hearings, a decision was made in favour of the appellant.
The Justice Committee says it is clear that these statistics represent a significant volume of incorrect decision-making on behalf of those tasked by the DWP to make decisions about benefits. And it calls on the Government to create a financial incentive for public bodies such as the DWP to get decisions right first time, and so avoid expensive court and tribunal cases.
Chair of the Committee, Sir Alan Beith MP, added:
"The Government needs to consider whether public bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions should be subject to a "polluter pays" approach, where they would have to pay a surcharge as a result of poor decision-making which leads to large numbers of successful appeals.