There are many knock-on consequences of the civil legal aid cuts, as a recent National Audit Office report notes.
Saving cash from the civil legal aid budget was relatively easy to do for the government. Reducing expenditure on legal aid is not like cutting the NHS or education. People do not tend to take to the streets to protest against the closing of their local legal aid practice, but as the National Audit Office report argues, slashing legal aid expenditure does have knock-on consequences which the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) failed to consider.
It is in the family courts that the most obvious impact of the MoJ’s actions has been felt. The bulk of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act cuts fell on private law family cases and the NAO reports that there has been a 30% increase in litigants in person in the family courts between April 2013 and March 2014. The NAO estimates that this has cost HM Courts & Tribunals Service an additional £3m per year plus £400,000 in direct costs to the MoJ.
A small silver lining in the cloud of civil legal aid cuts was the MoJ’s commitment to extra spending for mediation services to divert people away from the courts. As noted in the report this policy has failed. Despite the extra cash for mediation there were 56% fewer cases going to mediation in 2013/14 than had done so in the previous year.
In an attempt to relaunch the mediation policy initiative, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat minister at the MoJ, announced in November that initial mediation meetings would now be free for both parties, provided one of them qualifies for legal aid. While this is welcome, I’d argue putting back some independent legal advice for people unable to afford to pay for it would be the best way of encouraging couples to take up mediation and ensure access to justice.
Prior to the scope cuts civil legal aid practitioners were hit by a 10% fee cut from October 2011. The NAO is concerned that the MoJ did this without a clear understanding of how it would impact on the availability of the legal aid services which remain in scope. It analysed the remaining face-to-face services in England and Wales, concluding that in 14 local authority areas no legal aid services were provided in 2013-14.
The Legal Action Group believes there are many more gaps than this in civil legal aid services, for example in housing law. A recent investigation for the Independent newspaper concluded that despite the rise in repossessions the changes to legal aid have led to far fewer providers willing to take on such cases.
LAG’s own research shows that since the coalition government came to power there has been a reduction in the take up of civil legal aid cases, which has accelerated with the LASPO cuts. A combination of fee cuts, stifling bureaucracy, and lack of marketing and other factors means that what remains of civil legal aid risks withering away on the vine of justice.
Persuading the government to do more to guarantee access to justice, particularly for the poor and vulnerable is, to put it mildly, a difficult task. Ministers seem all too willing to take the reductions in expenditure on legal aid, which the NAO revealed were £32m greater than they had planed for, and argue disingenuously that any shortfall in take up is due to lack of demand.
The NAO observes that the government has failed to take into account the knock-on costs to the public sector, if people do not get their legal problems resolved through civil legal aid. As LAG’s recent research funded by the Law Society reveals, doctors believe there are health consequences for the rising numbers of patients they are seeing who need advice on common civil legal problems.
Making the politicians aware of the impact on health and other costs of the civil legal aid cuts just might be our best chance of forcing them to rethink.
Steve Hynes is the director of Legal Action Group