The government says a record number of applications for its safety net scheme from people denied civil legal aid is not connected with a wide-ranging decline in legal aid work and spending.

Official statistics published yesterday show that the Legal Aid Agency received 638 applications for exceptional case funding between July and September. This is the highest number of applications received in a single quarter since the scheme began in April 2013, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed vast swaths of law from scope.

The statistics also reveal a decline in legal help new matter starts, including in the areas of family, mental health and housing. The Gazette suggested that the steep rise in exceptional funding applications could explain this decline. 

However, the government insists the exceptional case funding scheme operates discretely and provides assistance only in cases where it is needed to make sure the UK meets its legal obligations. Cases that would be considered for exceptional funding would, by definition, not be eligible for funding under the regular legal aid scheme.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'Maintaining access to justice continues to be at the heart of our reforms. We are focusing legal aid resources on those who most need help. Last year we spent £1.6bn on legal aid, more than a fifth of the department's budget. We are assessing the legal aid changes brought in under LASPO through our post-implementation review of the legislation, which will report by summer recess 2018.