Leading civil servants at the Ministry of Justice have admitted they did not have the time to research the potential impact of cuts to civil legal aid.
During a lively session before the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) this morning, MoJ permanent secretary Ursula Brennan (pictured) said the government’s decision to cut £300m from the legal aid budget was ‘imperative’.
When pressed by committee members to explain the evidence basis for the subsequent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which came into force in April 2013, Brennan said the timescale did not allow for evidence-gathering in advance.
‘The government was explicit it needed to make these changes swiftly,’ she told MPs. ‘It was not possible to do research about the current regime.
‘The piece of evidence that was overwhelming was the level of spending. The evidence required was that government said we wish to cut the legal aid bill.’
Brennan said research on the impact of LASPO had to wait until after the legislation was implemented but she rebutted the opinion that the measure had denied people access to justice.
The permanent secretary also conceded that she does not know the cost of the reforms for other government departments, such as health, as no research has been carried out.
Committee chair Margaret Hodge accused the department of ‘endemic failure’ and criticised Brennan personally for not exercising her ‘proper powers’ to stop changes being implemented without an idea of their impact.
‘The thing that really distressed me is how you embarked on this with so little evidence,’ she said. ‘When you were changing the rules you had no idea the impact it would have.’
Hodge at times appeared frustrated with responses from Brennan, at one point accusing her of being ‘waffly’ and pressing her for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Another committee member, Conservative Richard Bacon, admonished Brennan for answering on behalf of other witnesses.
Conservative MP Stephen Phillips said it was impossible to tell if the government had achieved its £300m savings target if the MoJ did not research the impact of cuts on other departments.
‘How do you know there is not £100m of mental health costs flowing from these reforms?’ he asked. ‘How many economists are there in the MoJ? Dozens? It would be possible to work out the cost to other departments.’
On the issue of legal aid for victims of domestic violence, Catherine Lee, director general of the MoJ’s law and access to justice group, said the department was ‘listening’ and had made changes to barriers to funding to broaden the numbers eligible.
Hodge responded: ‘What is so upsetting about the whole of this is why you got the rules so ruddy wrong in the first instance.’
Hodge also questioned Matthew Coats, chief executive of the Legal Aid Agency, on the issue of fees paid to legal aid lawyers.
Coats, who appeared to suggest that some practitioners are paid more than judges, said there was no evidence to suggest that lower rates have affected quality.
But Hodge cited a National Audit Office report that found one-quarter of firms did not meet quality standards.
‘Is it the case you’re paying rock-bottom prices and getting rock-bottom quality? The prices you’re paying mean quality will inevitably in many cases be poor. This is the poorest people getting the poorest quality and you just sit there and say you will sign off contracts in a different way next time.’
Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary, responding to the PAC evidence session on legal aid, said: ‘There are now parts of the country where people are struggling to access valuable legal advice. And the 30% rise in litigants in person and the drastic fall in mediation assessments mean that many of the government’s predicted savings have simply shifted to other departments.’