People working at the grassroots of the justice system say legal aid cuts and court closures are reducing the quality of service they provide.
The Trades Union Congress today published a report featuring interviews with members working for HM Courts & Tribunals Service.
Nine in 10 respondents viewed budget cuts to court services and the Crown Prosecution Service as detrimental to the effective delivery of justice.
More than two-thirds (71%) said the last round of court closures have had a negative impact, while 57% said their workloads have increased since 2010. This was attributed to cuts to staffing combined with an increase in the volume of work.
Around 87% felt that an increase in litigants in person has had a detrimental effect on the ability of family and civil courts to deliver justice fairly, effectively and efficiently.
The TUC-backed Speak Up For Justice campaign is calling for a moratorium on further budget and staff cuts in the justice sector, a pause on any further court closures and an immediate review of the effects of legal aid reforms made through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) legislation.
‘Overwhelmingly the response from our staff survey and interviews with experts in the field support the view that LASPO, reforms to court services and budget cuts have had a detrimental impact on access to justice, including those most vulnerable in our society,’ said the report.
The TUC said the Ministry of Justice has still not made any effort to assess whether the reduction in spending on civil legal aid is outweighed by additional costs in other parts of the public sector.
It added the budget for HMCTS was cut by £157m (16%) between 2010/11 and 2015/16, while the CPS budget has been slashed by £129m (21%) over the same period.
The MoJ said it has made sure support remains in the most serious cases, where people face the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases of where their children may be taken into care.
It added that closing underused and dilapidated court buildings will allow the department to reinvest in the just system and make the best use of technology, to improve the experience for all court users.
A spokesman added: ‘We have a generous legal aid system – last year spending more than £1.5bn on legal aid.
‘We must ensure legal aid is sustainable and fair – both for those who need it and the taxpayer who pays for it. That is why we have made sure support remains available to the most vulnerable and in the most serious cases, and are taking action to ensure people can access the help they need.’
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said the research was further evidence of the detrimental impact that LASPO has had on access to justice.
‘The statistics demonstrate how the increase in litigants in person post-LASPO is having a negative effect on the ability of the family and civil courts to deliver justice.
‘It also supports anecdotal evidence that the increase in litigants in person is causing cases to take longer – which costs time and money.
'We support the TUC’s calls for an in-depth assessment into the effects of the budget cuts and for the government to take a look at justice holistically. We also support the call for no further court closures until an impact assessment of existing closures has been undertaken.’
A halt to further swingeing cuts appears unlikely. As the National Audit Office reported this week, the 2015 spending review requires the department to achieve savings of 15% and halve its administrative budget by 2020.