The Ministry of Justice has said there is ‘no strong evidence’ to suggest legal aid cuts have affected hearing times.
In a document published today, the department said the mean duration per hearing in private law cases after 2013 was 74 minutes – just a minute longer than the mean recorded before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was implemented.
In cases whether neither party was represented, hearing times fell by six minutes post-LASPO, from 69 minutes to 63 minutes.
Where both parties were represented, hearing times went up by 10 minutes post-LASPO, from 79 minutes to 89 minutes.
However, the MoJ emphasised there are a number of caveats with the main finding, the most important of which is that data was based on ‘estimated rather than actual’ hearing durations.
From April 2013, legal aid became available only for private family law cases (such as contact or divorce) if there is evidence of domestic violence or child abuse and child abduction cases. Legal aid remains available for public family law cases such as adoption.
Despite an increase in the number of parties without legal representation since the cuts were introduced, the figures appear to contradict concerns about litigants in person slowing down the court system.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter told personal injury lawyers yesterday that the capacity for courts to operate effectively was in doubt.
He said: ‘It can’t be healthy that meritorious claims are not reaching court while court time is clogged with litigants in person who, because they are not receiving the benefit of legal advice, may be pursuing hopeless cases.’
Though the data analysed by the MoJ is based on estimated hearing times, the ministry has identified ways in which the ‘evidence gap’ could be addressed in future.