The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has added its voice to calls for an independent assessment of the impact of the government’s cuts to legal aid.
In a hard-hitting report on Ministry of Justice finances, the committee said the government’s own impact assessment ‘has not identified the behaviour changes which may arise from the new legal aid arrangements, and should do so’.
It called on the ministry to arrange for the National Audit Office ‘to review the impact assessment to ascertain whether the assumptions are sound and uncertainties have been acknowledged’.
Elsewhere the report is scathing about the MoJ’s ability to keep track of its accounts. The committee found ‘unacceptable’ the ministry’s failure to file departmental accounts on time, a failing it said ‘undermines public confidence in the ministry’s stewardship of funds’.
Much of the blame lies with ‘significant problems’ with the accounts produced by the Legal Services Commission and HM Courts Service’s Trust Statement, produced for the first time in 2010-11.
The report noted that the department’s permanent secretary ‘was not willing to commit to meeting the government timetable for the 2011-12 accounts, or even those for 2012-13. While we welcome his candour, this is not a tenable position’.
To get back on track, it called for a plan to reduce errors in legal aid payments.
Arrangements for court fees - of which there are 330 - also came in for criticism.
Margaret Hodge MP, the committee’s chair, warned that without full information there is a risk that cuts would hit frontline services rather than be achieved through efficiencies.