The number of firms providing legal aid is continuing to gradually decline, the government’s latest statistics bulletin suggests.
Figures published by the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency today show a gradual fall in the number of provider offices for crime and civil work that received claim expenditure for work done between April 2012 and March 2016.
The decline for civil providers was greater than the decline for crime providers between January and March this year, compared to the first quarter of 2015.
Expenditure on 'crime lower' work, such as pre-charge and police station information and prison assistance, has declined more than workloads – down 15% compared to the first quarter of last year.
The ministry says this reflects the introduction of a 8.75% fee cut for litigators in March 2014 for most 'crime lower' legal aid work and perhaps, to some extent, the impact of a second 8.75% fee cut in July 2015, which was suspended in April.
The government spent just over £49m on central funds for costs in cases not covered by the main criminal legal aid schemes in the 2015-16 financial year. This was 11% lower than the previous year.
The largest area of expenditure was £13.5m in relation to reimbursements to defendants acquitted after privately funding their defence lawyers.
The second largest area of expenditure, at £11.4m, covered the cost of lawyers required where the court decided that an unrepresented defendant must not be allowed to cross-examine a vulnerable witness.
Around nine in 10 applications for civil representation received over the last 12 months were initially granted a certificate, compared to 83% prior to the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April 2013.
The ministry said this may be due to a change in the mix of areas of law involved. For instance, the proportion of applications in relation to the Special Children Act, which are not subject to a means or merit test, has risen and almost all are granted.
However, new matter starts in family legal help between January and March were 18% lower than the first quarter of last year.
Mental health workload between January and March this year fell by 7% compared to the same period last year.
The bulletin states that most of the reduction ‘is due to the exit from the legal aid market of the largest provider of mental health legal help and controlled legal representation in summer 2015’. A spokesperson for the ministry confirmed to the Gazette that the provider in question was national firm Blavo & Co Solicitors.
Meanwhile the agency received 390 applications for exceptional case funding between January and March, of which 70 were made directly by clients. More than half determined by 31 May were granted.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said the decline in criminal and civil legal aid matters were resulting in significant savings to the government, far more than was expected.
'Research by Oxford Economics in 2014 showed this downward trend in crime. The Society argued that the drop would secure savings for the ministry that negated the need for the significant legal aid fee cuts. Today's figures clearly demonstrate the accuracy of that research.' Smithers said.
'Cuts to legal aid are jeopardising the sustainability of the criminal justice system and putting at risk the ability of vulnerable people to access justice. We therefore recommend the ministry abolishes the second - currently suspended - fee cut altogether and considers reversing the first.'