The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has released a report of their inquiry into the impact of the cuts to the civil legal aid budget, introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). The report provides a damning indictment of the rationale and impact of the reforms, both in regard to the lack of progress in meeting the government’s stated objectives, as well as in the lack of any serious attempt to understand value for money, feasibility or impact.
The key finding of the committee is that while the government has rapidly reduced and continues to reduce the amount it spends on civil legal aid, it has “introduced…[these]…major changes on the basis of no evidence in many areas…”
The government is cutting £220m per year from the Legal Aid budget (covering both civil and criminal legal aid). The findings of this inquiry by the PAC give further weight to existing criticism of the reforms. On top of undermining access to justice, especially for families and children, the reforms, the PAC make clear, may have actually increased costs, while the government has little to no understanding of their impact.
MoJ made little use of or ignored evidence: It is far from clear whether any progress has been made in achieving objectives
As well as spending reductions, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had other objectives in implementing its reforms, namely:
- Reducing the number of cases coming to court
- Targeting civil legal aid to those who need it most
- Delivering better overall value for money in civil legal aid.
Of these objectives, the PAC note that it is “far from clear” whether the MoJ has achieved them. The committee report that the MoJ “gathered little evidence before implementation and did not make good use of the information that it did have”. In one example given by the committee, during the consultation for the reforms in 2010, the government was told that “people who are subjected to domestic violence may have difficulty providing evidence to demonstrate their eligibility for legal aid after the reforms”. The MoJ was still making changes to the evidence rules in April 2014, which was a year after the reforms were implemented.
The MoJ has admitted that “it still has little understanding of why people go to court and how and why people access legal aid”. Despite this huge lack of understanding, the government went ahead with the changes, and now admit that they have not properly assessed the full impact of the reforms.
The evidence that is emerging is extremely worrying. Napo and PCS report that in family courts, in 42 per cent of cases neither party had legal representation by the end of 2013, compared to 18 per cent before the legal aid cuts. Women’s Aid has conducted research which reveals that due to budget cuts, victims of domestic violence are now unlikely to get legal aid, putting them and their families at risk:
- Fifty per cent of women do not have the prescribed evidence needed to apply for legal aid in family law cases.
- Sixty per cent of women take no further action if they’re not eligible for legal aid.
- Over 30 per cent of women find it very difficult to find a Legal Aid solicitor.
MoJ is still playing catch-up two years after reforms
The committee found that almost two years after the reforms, the MoJ is “still playing catch up: it does not know if those still eligible are able to access legal aid; and it does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given”. The Legal Aid Agency, the body that administers legal aid, monitors provision of legal aid by the number of contracts awarded, rather than the amount of work being done. In its 2012 impact assessment, the MoJ stated that they would establish a robust mechanism to identify and address any shortfalls in the provision of legal aid, but have not done so.
As the government has removed the requirement that providers carry out a minimum amount of work to keep their legal aid contracts, there is no way of knowing whether people are accessing legal aid by counting the number of contracts awarded. The PAC report contains findings by the National Audit Office (NAO), in regard to legal aid provision, that “12 per cent of law firms holding legal aid contracts did not undertake any legal aid work in the year after the reforms…[and]…There were 53 local authority areas with fewer than 50 face-to-face civil legal aid cases, and in 14 of these areas there were no cases started.”
MoJ has no understanding of value for money
One of the most worrying findings of the Public Accounts Committee’s report, is that the MoJ “does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the public sector”. The committee found that the MoJ was unable to say whether the cuts that it made to legal aid spending have simply shifted costs elsewhere in the public sector. The committee note, “It…[the MoJ]…therefore does not know whether the projected £300 million spending reduction in its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere.”
The committee received substantial evidence by the Citizens Advice Bureau regarding the savings to the public purse as a result of the advice it provides, the committee expects the MoJ to “do similar work to understand the impact of its reforms”.
The report contains a series of recommendations for the government. To read the report, please see: Public Accounts Committee (2015) Implementing Reforms to Civil Legal Aid (London, Stationary Office).