MoJ chief admits cuts rushed through without research

Topics: Legal aid and access to justice,Government & politics

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  • Ursula Brennan

Leading civil servants at the Ministry of Justice have admitted they did not have the time to research the potential impact of cuts to civil legal aid.

During a lively session before the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) this morning, MoJ permanent secretary Ursula Brennan (pictured) said the government’s decision to cut £300m from the legal aid budget was ‘imperative’.

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When pressed by committee members to explain the evidence basis for the subsequent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which came into force in April 2013, Brennan said the timescale did not allow for evidence-gathering in advance.

‘The government was explicit it needed to make these changes swiftly,’ she told MPs. ‘It was not possible to do research about the current regime.

‘The piece of evidence that was overwhelming was the level of spending. The evidence required was that government said we wish to cut the legal aid bill.’

Brennan said research on the impact of LASPO had to wait until after the legislation was implemented but she rebutted the opinion that the measure had denied people access to justice.

The permanent secretary also conceded that she does not know the cost of the reforms for other government departments, such as health, as no research has been carried out.

Committee chair Margaret Hodge accused the department of ‘endemic failure’ and criticised Brennan personally for not exercising her ‘proper powers’ to stop changes being implemented without an idea of their impact.

‘The thing that really distressed me is how you embarked on this with so little evidence,’ she said. ‘When you were changing the rules you had no idea the impact it would have.’

Hodge at times appeared frustrated with responses from Brennan, at one point accusing her of being ‘waffly’ and pressing her for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Another committee member, Conservative Richard Bacon, admonished Brennan for answering on behalf of other witnesses.

Conservative MP Stephen Phillips said it was impossible to tell if the government had achieved its £300m savings target if the MoJ did not research the impact of cuts on other departments.

‘How do you know there is not £100m of mental health costs flowing from these reforms?’ he asked. ‘How many economists are there in the MoJ? Dozens? It would be possible to work out the cost to other departments.’

On the issue of legal aid for victims of domestic violence, Catherine Lee, director general of the MoJ’s law and access to justice group, said the department was ‘listening’ and had made changes to barriers to funding to broaden the numbers eligible.

Hodge responded: ‘What is so upsetting about the whole of this is why you got the rules so ruddy wrong in the first instance.’

Hodge also questioned Matthew Coats, chief executive of the Legal Aid Agency, on the issue of fees paid to legal aid lawyers.

Coats, who appeared to suggest that some practitioners are paid more than judges, said there was no evidence to suggest that lower rates have affected quality.

But Hodge cited a National Audit Office report that found one-quarter of firms did not meet quality standards. 

‘Is it the case you’re paying rock-bottom prices and getting rock-bottom quality? The prices you’re paying mean quality will inevitably in many cases be poor. This is the poorest people getting the poorest quality and you just sit there and say you will sign off contracts in a different way next time.’

Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary, responding to the PAC evidence session on legal aid, said: ‘There are now parts of the country where people are struggling to access valuable legal advice. And the 30% rise in litigants in person and the drastic fall in mediation assessments mean that many of the government’s predicted savings have simply shifted to other departments.’

Readers' comments (18)

  • Another depressing 'imperative'.

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  • MoJ Permanent Secretary: refuted the opinion that the measure had denied people access to justice.

    LAA CEO: appeared to suggest that some practitioners are paid more than judges

    Is it too much to ask that these over-remunerated members of the Quangocracy get out more and speak to real legal aid lawyers for a reality check? Their utterances are truly beyond belief.

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  • So pleased they rushed it through. The increase in monthly borrowing by the Government since last year was well worth the effort.

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  • The only thing that was 'imperative' was that legal aid lawyers be given as little time as possible to respond, hence the rush.

    Grayling strikes again!

    I agree with Mr Gringle: the whole thing is beyond belief!

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  • Unbelievable!

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  • Why hasn't the PAC got the guts to summon Grayling and grill him. And why does he expect or even allow his staff to carry the can for him?

    I'm sure Ms Brennan let slip the truth in saying their masters did not give them enough time to consider properly the repercussions of what they had been told to implement. Bearing in mind, how seriously lying to Parliament has traditionally been regarded, I hope she doesn't suffer for not lying on her masters' behalf.

    Margaret Hodge, who has been in government, should know better than to tell her that she should have used her 'proper powers' to restrain her minister. That's an unpleasant statement and a nonsense.

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  • Access to justice for the poor is a thing of the past so far as civil law is concerned. It's mediation or Co-op Law or eat cake. The "past it" judges like mediation to see them through retirement, the Co-op likes its ethical status to see it through, and low calorie cake is on the way for the poor who are derided for obesity
    The inquisitorial system of law is being imported thanks to Napoleon to wash down the cake
    Solicitors were too big for their boots and had to be dragged kicking and screaming through their pro bono hairstyle to join the rest of the lunatics running the asylum
    There is a musical in there somewhere

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  • Dear DD
    Excellent. Aren't your efforts wasted in the law? Peer pressure from parents I suspect. Anyway I'm off for more cake, at least the few crumbs left after my PII broker left us to share.

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  • Unfortunately the Law Society and the other representative groups failed at the very start to highlight and repeat the effect that reduced fees would have on access to justice and on quality of advice. Instead our representatives were suckered into discussions about fees and assisted the Government in the making of the cuts. Now we have two tier contracts being tendered for by criminal practitioners which will only reduce the quality of representation even more for those who opt for the duty. There is a direct link between the fee and the quality of representation which is something LSB and LAA choose to ignore as it doesn't suit the agenda.
    We should campaign for access to justice and for the preservation of a quality service and regain the high ground.
    To the barricades!!

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  • I have just commented on the article about 'negligence claims soaring' that much of the problem lies with the weak and pathetic leadership on behalf of the Profession at the CML negotiation table.

    This is a recurring theme as regards TLS isn't it ? It's never changed in the 20 years since I came into the Profession.

    Surrender and lie down in the face of any pressure whatsoever and revert to obtaining Counsel's Opinion to kick the can down the road, whilst everybody from the Govnt., Insurers, Lenders, Estate Agents and McKenzie friends trample all over us.

    Reasoned argument should be the basis for any change, but as we can see from this article, he who shouts loudest is often believed and gets his way, whether right or wrong.

    Christ TLS have a lot to learn from the Bar Council and ICAEW and develop a backbone and some fight.

    You can't win every argument but you can certainly get the backing of your members for having a right go and simply by standing your corner you might actually get results !

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