An increasing lack of opportunities for contact between clients and law firms brought on by controversial legal aid cuts may have driven the steep decline in the number of family mediation cases, the government has admitted.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which was introduced in April 2013, made no changes to the scope of legal aid for facilitating mediation. Legal aid was also kept for facilitating mediation information and assessment meetings (MIAMs).
However, the Ministry of Justice's statistics bulletin for legal aid between January to March, published today, states that the number of MIAMs fell sharply after LASPO was introduced. The figure currently stands at around half of pre-LASPO levels.
Prior to LASPO, clients could not receive a legal aid certificate to cover the cost of their representation at court unless they had first considered mediation, subject to certain exceptions.
The report says: 'The scope changes reduced the opportunities for contact between clients and law firms. This therefore reduced the potential for clients to be told about mediation and to be referred to it and is likely to have contributed to the decline in mediation take-up following the scope changes.'
Over 80% of publicly funded MIAMs were made by legal aid solicitors before April 2013. Post-LASPO, this dropped to 10%. The report says other referral sources have increased, 'but not by enough to compensate for the loss in legal aid solicitor referrals'.
The Legal Aid Agency received 527 applications for exceptional case funding - the highest since the scheme began four years ago. Of the 489 determined by the agency as of 31 May, 264 were granted, 103 were refused and 98 were rejected.
Unlike previous bulletins, today's report does not contain figures on the average turnaround times for application assessments, due to 'data quality concerns'.
The report says: 'One of the key issues affecting this decision is the way in which we monitor those applications that are put on hold while further information is requested, in particular in those cases where the application is put on hold more than once.'
Between January and March, legally aided housing work fell by 3% compared to the same quarter last year. Legal aid is available for cases involving serious disrepair or homelessness and possession proceedings.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, said legal aid cuts were not sustainable for disadvantaged people who may have rights 'which do not count for much' without legal assistance.
He added: 'A case in point is that of Grenfell Tower survivors, whom our North Kensington Law Centre helps mostly thanks to public and charitable donations and pro bono volunteering to augment its staff, as legal aid covers so little of their legal needs.'