The Ministry of Justice has insisted that civil courts have not been adversely affected by last year’s deep cuts – despite fresh criticism of the changes from the country’s most senior judges.
The Judicial Executive Board, whose membership includes master of the rolls Lord Dyson and lord chief justice Sir John Thomas, last week made its most damning attack on the consequences of last year’s civil legal aid cuts.
In its response to the first year of the regime introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), the board described an ‘unprecedented increase’ in the number of litigants in person.
As a result, meritorious cases have been dropped, weak cases allowed to proceed and huge demands placed on court staff to offer help to vulnerable litigants, the judges said. The response also questioned expected savings given the ‘adverse effect’ on courts’ administration and efficiency.
However, a spokesman for the MoJ said its latest figures show family court performance ‘is being maintained’, with the average time taken to complete cases remaining ‘steady’ since April 2013.
‘We have listened closely to any concerns raised and are committed to reviewing certain aspects of the scheme in response,’ he added.
The spokesman said LASPO was necessary both to meet an ‘unprecedented financial challenge’ and to resolve a situation where court had become the ‘default option’.
He denied that legal aid cuts are solely responsible for the increase in LiPs, adding: ‘There have always been a significant number of people representing themselves in court — they did in around half of all private law cases in 2012.’
The government said its policy now is to guide litigants towards mediation. But that assertion was dismissed by the board, which said take-up of mediation and ADR has fallen.
‘The judiciary’s perception is that cases which may never have been brought or compromised at an early stage are now often fully contested, requiring significantly more judicial involvement and causing delays,’ it said.