The government’s civil legal aid cuts were badly researched and implemented, and have impeded access to justice, an influential committee of MPs reports today.
The House of Commons justice committee says that the speed with which the Ministry of Justice sought to save money resulted in the department failing to meet its objectives for the reforms.
The consequences have been a ‘substantial’ increase in litigants in person, growing pressure on the courts, a fall in mediation and troubling reports of ‘advice deserts’.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act took effect there has also been an underspend because the MoJ did not ensure those who could still access civil legal aid were able to get it.
The cross-party committee of MPs says government’s savings were ‘potentially undermined’ by an inability to show value for money for the taxpayer. In particular the cuts generated ‘knock-on’ costs for courts costs and local councils.
The MPs also criticise the government’s ‘safety net’ of exceptional case funding, which has not worked as intended, denying funding to deserving cases. The report concludes that the Legal Aid Agency failed to give sufficient weight to access to justice in deciding which cases merited funding, which may have resulted in miscarriages of justice.
Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith, committee chair (pictured), said making savings of £2bn from the departmental budget of £9.8bn was ‘clearly a very challenging target’ which was successfully achieved. But the savings were rushed through too quickly to understand the full consequences and prepare for the knock-on effects.
The criticisms are contained in a report on the impact of changes to civil legal aid introduced under Part 1 of LASPO.
‘Many of the issues which we have identified and which have been identified to us could have been avoided by research and an evidence base to work from, as well as by the proper provision of public information about the reforms,’ the report concludes.
‘It is therefore crucial that, in addition to the various remedial steps which we recommend in the short term, in the longer term the ministry work to provide this information and undertake the requisite research so a review of the policy can be undertaken.’
The committee recommends that the MoJ undertake a public campaign to combat the widespread impression that legal aid is ‘almost non-existent’.
MPs want staffing changes for the exceptional case funding scheme, having been ‘surprised’ that applications are not currently determined by officials with specialist knowledge.
On domestic violence, the committee cites concerns about the 24-month time limit for producing the evidence necessary to qualify for legal aid. MPs recommended a new amendment to give the LAA discretion to allow evidence if domestic violence happened more than two years ago.
The committee did not accept the ministry’s assurance that it was monitoring whether vulnerable people can still access legal aid, as there was ‘ample evidence’ that funding was not reaching those most in need.
The committee also urges the government to drop its appeal over the legality of its residence test, which limits legal aid to people with a ‘strong connection’ to the UK.
The report adds: ‘We question whether pursuing an appeal in the “residence test” case is a good use of public money. It seems to us that the residence test is likely to save very little from the civil legal aid budget and would potentially bar some highly vulnerable people from legal assistance in accessing the courts.’
An MoJ spokesperson said the government worked closely with organisations that provide advice and offer early intervention in disputes to ensure they have the full information they need to help people, and there is a dedicated 24/7 online service to help people understand if they qualify for civil legal aid and where advice is available if they do not.
He added: ‘We are keeping these reforms under close review and have already made changes to address issues raised. We are also undertaking a comprehensive research programme to better understand why people choose to go court and how they deal with legal problems.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘We support the justice committee’s call for an urgent review. The Society has consistently warned the government of the dangers of its civil legal aid policies. This report adds to the growing dossier of evidence proving that the legal aid changes have failed to meet the government’s own objectives.
‘There is no doubt that people are being denied access to justice. Recent research has shown that many domestic violence victims are being failed by the system as they face tough evidence requirements before they can even receive advice and assistance under the legal aid scheme. This goes far beyond what parliament ever intended.
He added: ‘The report highlights that even for cases where parliament intended that legal aid should be available, the system is not working, and people are being denied the help they need. This is having a significant knock-on cost for the public purse, as well as a devastating personal impact on people who cannot get help.’