Cuts to civil legal aid have reduced the amount of ‘unnecessary and adversarial’ litigation while ensuring funding is targeted at those who need it most, the government has said in response to a devastating report on changes to civil legal aid.
In a report published in March, the House of Commons justice committee said the government’s cuts to civil legal aid, brought in under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), were badly researched and implemented, and have impeded access to justice.
But the Ministry of Justice today said that while there have been challenges in implementing such a significant programme of reforms, it does not accept the assessment that it has failed to achieve wider objectives than savings.
In an official response to the committee's report, it also says that the reforms were ‘expressly designed’ to make sure they meet their legal commitments.
Addressing the issue of exceptional case funding, which the committee said was not fit for purpose, the Ministry of Justice said no miscarriages of justice had occurred where exceptional funding was refused.
It said that the scheme would continue to be provided in cases where absence would breach an individual’s rights under the European Convention of Human Rights, but stressed that the scheme was not for providing funding more generally.
The MoJ did say, however, that it was considering its position in relation to providing an advocate paid for by central funds in ‘certain narrow circumstances’.
This was a response to a Court of Appeal judgment in which master of the rolls Lord Dyson suggested that a change to the law should be considered to make public funding available to appoint a lawyer where cross-examination is required in certain civil litigation.
The cross-party committee of MPs had said the government’s savings were ‘potentially undermined’ by an inability to show value for money for the taxpayer, and failed to show the level of knock-on costs arising from the reforms.
But the government pointed out that a study by the National Audit Office was able to estimate only one wider cost, that of dealing with litigants in person, which represented a ‘very small fraction’ of legal aid savings of around 1%. ‘The NAO were not able to meaningfully quantify the impact of wider costs outside of the justice system,’ it said.
The committee had also criticised the government's reforms under LASPO as leading to a ‘substantial’ increase in litigants in person, growing pressure on courts and troubling reports of ‘advice deserts’
Responding to reports of ‘advice deserts’ the government said that there were active contracts in the vast majority of procurement areas, and where this is not the case the Legal Aid Agency has taken action to find alternative provision.
But the MoJ admitted that it could ‘do more’, and said it will continue to investigate geographical variations in the take up of legal aid.
On the issue of litigants in person, the MoJ said that it was funding a ‘Litigants in Person Support Strategy’, which it says seeks to prioritise the provision of legal support in civil and family cases through the coordination of local support and expertise.