Lawyers and other campaigners for access to justice have a new lever for persuading politicians to loosen their purse strings. The International Bar Association and the World Bank today published a step-by step guide to drawing up rigorous cost-benefit analyses of legal aid schemes.

The authors are confident that such analysis will dispel popular suspicion that legal aid benefits only lawyers (and criminals). It is based on a study of 54 cost-benefit analyses from mainly common-law countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. The overall conclusion is that the payback of assisting access to legal advice greatly outweighs the cost, to the individual and society and the justice system itself.

Direct tangible benefits include less lost income for the individual and society and lower costs for running court cases when parties are represented.  Indirect intangible returns include trust in the justice system and feelings of empowerment. One of the examples is the 2017 study in Scotland showing that every pound spent on legal aid in housing cases created a return of about £11. 

Presenting the study at the IBA's annual conference in Seoul today, author Klaus Decker, public sector specialist at the World Bank, said the research showed a strong correlation between access to justice and human capital - though he cautioned that this did not necessarily mean one created the other: 'The causality probably works both ways.'

However he said that cost-benefit analyses help win political arguments: 'When you bring numbers to the table it's easier,' he said.

Based on the research, the IBA/World Bank report, A Tool for Justice: the cost benefit analysis of legal aid, sets out five steps to creating a rigorous assessment. This must include comparative financial analysis of the two scenarios: with the legal aid, and without it. Introducing the report, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, former president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said that although the mathematics of the toolkit might appear daunting to lawyers, she had checked it with economists who had assured her it was 'standard stuff'. 

Another speaker with long experience in lobbying for legal aid, Mark Woods of the Law Council of Australia, gave some hints for deploying cost benefit studies in lobbying campaigns. 'Altruism has no natural place in the political process, "The right thing to do" doesn't garner votes.' And while access to justice is 'a difficult concept' for many politicians, it can help to make the argument beyond the justice ministry that 'Any political decision creates a consequent increase in legal need'. But much depends on the political clout of the law minister with their colleagues in government. 

Meanwhile, two speakers from Nigeria outlined some of the obstacles ahead in arguing for legal aid in the developing world. Rosemary Chikwendu, of Abuja firm Chikwendu & Chikwendu & Co, told the event that while in theory Nigerian law guarantees access to legal aid, the only people eligible are those earning below the national minimum wage of around $50 a month.

Professor Joy Ezeilo, of the University of Nigeria, said that in countries where corruption is endemic, people in authority have a vested interest in inefficiencies caused by lack of access to advice. 'They are going to resist, they are going to fight back,' she warned.