The Ministry of Justice has not put in place sufficient measures to future-proof the legal aid sector, according to MPs tasked with scrutinising public spending.

The public accounts committee’s report on the value for money of legal aid will be an even more depressing read for practitioners given the July general election appears to have kicked the government’s civil legal aid review into the long grass and scuppered hopes of more cash for criminal legal aid following the Law Society’s High Court victory in January.

In today’s report, the committee concludes that over a decade since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force, the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency lack sufficient data to assess whether those eligible for legal aid can actually access it, and lacked an 'accurate picture' of where gaps in provision exist. MoJ and LAA do not estimate demand for legally aided services and do not capture routine data on whether providers are turning potential clients away.

On why the MoJ was taking so long to implement means test reforms following a review announced in 2019, the committee was told delays were due to policy complexity and challenges in updating the LAA’s digital systems. ‘It also identified competing government priorities such as developing and making changes resulting from the [Illegal Migration Act] as a contributing factor,’ the report says.

On sustainability, the committee said the MoJ was slow to initiate and complete its large-scale criminal and civil legal aid reviews.

'The committee recognises that MoJ has taken steps to address issues with the market sustainability of legal aid through its large-scale reviews of criminal and civil legal aid. But the pace of its response has been troublingly slow, particularly in civil legal aid, where fees have not increased for 28 years. MoJ must take a more proactive and routine approach if it is to ensure the future provision of legal aid,' the report says.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'Our priority has always been to ensure legal aid is available to those who need it most and in the last year alone we spent nearly £2bn helping people facing legal difficulties, including thousands of families and domestic abuse victims. We are also reviewing the system to ensure it is sustainable well into the future and will carefully consider the findings in this report.'

With the government about to head into pre-election 'purdah', it will be up to the next government to decide whether or not to act on the committee's recommendations. 


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