The Government “does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock – on costs of its [Legal Aid] reforms across the public sector”
The Public Accounts Committee has accused the Government of having made cuts to legal aid without understanding the potential consequences of these cuts. Many of its findings will resonate with those who provide social welfare advice.
In its report published today, on the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) the committee said the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is on course to make a “significant and rapid reduction” in spending, but has little idea of whether the £300m annual saving is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere.
The committee chair said it was “deeply disturbing” that changes to legal aid had been pushed through on the basis of “no evidence in many areas, and without making good use of the evidence that it did have in other areas”. Despite lawyers in the social welfare sector having warned the MoJ about the impact of its cuts to civil legal aid and the increased costs they would create elsewhere, it was not the type of evidence they were willing to listen to. The level of spend seems to have been the critical factor in driving cuts in legal aid.
The report found that the changes in Civil Legal Aid had limited access to mediation for family cases. Mediations for family law matters fell by 38% in the year after the reforms, rather than increasing by 74% as the Ministry expected. The short-sightedness of the Government is made clear in these figures. Despite the MoJ knowing that solicitors were the major channel through which people were referred to mediation, they failed to foresee that removing legal aid for solicitors would reduce referrals. The report recommends that the Ministry should closely monitor the take up of mediation following the changes it made in April 2014, and should take prompt action if this does not increase as expected. The fall in mediation in family law matters contrasts with an increase in the number of contested family cases reaching the courts. The concern caused by these figures, is compounded by the rise in “litigants in person “in the family courts – especially in cases involving children and the rise in contested family cases.
The report said that the complexity of the justice system is preventing people accessing justice, if they are no longer eligible for legal aid. Recent Government proposals for another significant increase in civil Court fees, including applications to suspend an eviction warrant or set aside an order for possession, are likely to further limit access to justice.
Sheila Donn and Beverley King, joint managing Partners at Philcox Gray Solicitors and Mediators believe that Legal Aid makes a significant difference to families and households, to local area economics, and also contributes to significant public savings. Their experience is that early legal advice prevents problems from escalating into unnecessary and expensive litigation.
Article by: Philcox Gray Solicitors & Mediators
Article Date: 4 February 2015