The Ministry of Justice introduced legal aid reforms without taking account of the potential consequences and continues to show little interest in their knock-on effects, MPs said today.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the MoJ is still playing ‘catch up’ almost two years after reducing the scope of civil legal aid, with ‘considerable gaps’ in its understanding.
In its report published today on the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), the all-party committee said the department is on course to make a ‘significant and rapid’ reduction in spending, but has little idea of whether the £300m annual saving is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere.
The report said: ‘[The MoJ] does not know if those still eligible are able to access legal aid; and it does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given.
‘Perhaps most worryingly of all, it does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on effects of its reforms across the public sector.’
The ministry defended its reforms and said the National Audit Office has found no clear evidence they have impacted on other parts of government.
Committee chair Margaret Hodge (pictured) said it was ‘deeply disturbing’ that reforms were based not on evidence but on an objective to cut costs as quickly as possible.
She highlighted evidence from MoJ permanent secretary Ursula Brennan that the level of spend was the ‘critical’ factor driving reforms.
She added: ‘The ministry still does not understand what its reforms mean for people. It has little understanding of why people go to court and how and why people access legal aid in the first place, and only commissioned research into these issues in 2014 – more than a year after its reforms were implemented.
‘There are signs that the complexity of the justice system may be preventing people who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid from securing effective access to justice.’
Hodge said there has been a 30% rise in the number of cases starting in family courts in which both parties were litigants in person.
The number of contested family cases reaching the courts rose from 64% in the three months before the reforms to 89% a year later. Mediations for family law matters fell by 38% in the year after the reforms, rather than increasing by 74% as the MoJ expected.
The report concluded that the MoJ knew that solicitors were the major channel through which people were referred to mediation, but failed to foresee that removing legal aid for solicitors would reduce referrals.
Contrary to the ministry’s assurances to parliament, the committee said the MoJ does not know whether people who are eligible for legal aid are able to get it. In particular, the Legal Aid Agency had failed to explain why there were 53 local authority areas with fewer than 50 face-to-face legal aid cases, and in 14 areas there were no cases started.
The establishment of a mechanism to identify and address shortfalls in provision was one of the several recommendations made by the report.
The committee wants future decisions to be based on greater evidence, the collection of reliable data on operations of the court service and a review of processes for people not eligible for legal aid. Recommendations also include new targets to improve the quality of legal advice, closer examination of mediation take-up rates and a full evaluation of the wider costs to the public sector of LASPO.
Hodge added: ‘While the ministry is on track to make a significant and rapid reduction in the cost of legal aid, it is far from clear that these savings represent value for money.
‘It needs to get on and urgently review the impact of its reforms and, where necessary, act to address issues such as cost-shifting and people struggling to access justice.’
An MoJ spokesman said legal aid is a vital part of the justice system but resources are ‘not limitless and must be properly targeted at the cases that need it most’.
‘We are pleased the committee has acknowledged our reforms have been successful in making the significant savings we had no choice but to find given the financial crisis this government inherited.
‘When the National Audit Office specifically looked at our civil legal aid reforms it was only able to identify small additional costs to the MoJ – approximately 1% of the £300m savings. The NAO also found no clear evidence of wider costs to other parts of government.
‘When we began reform we had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at £2bn a year and even after reform it will remain very generous at around £1.5bn per year.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘We repeatedly warned the MoJ about the impact of its cuts to civil legal aid and the increased costs they would create elsewhere, but the ministry turned a deaf ear. As we recently argued before the High Court it is even more worrying that we see the same refusal to gather evidence to understand the impact of its policies in the MoJ’s plans for criminal legal aid.
‘We continue to warn the MoJ about the impact of cuts to legal aid as well as hikes in civil court fees. These will undermine the right to access legal advice, which is fundamental to the rule of law in this country.’