Categorized | Civil Law, Legal Aid

Justice committee criticises civil legal aid cuts

Justice committee criticises civil legal aid cuts

When examined by the House of Commons public accounts committee, leading civil servants at the Ministry of Justice admitted that they did not have the time to research the potential impact of cuts to legal aid included in LAPSO. Permanent Secretary Ursula Brennan confessed “The piece of evidence that was overwhelming was the level of spending. The evidence required was that government said we wish to cut the legal aid bill.”

Committee chair Margaret Hodge accused the department of ‘endemic failure’. “The thing that really distressed me is how you embarked on this with so little evidence,” she said. “When you were changing the rules you had no idea the impact it would have.”

This criticism was echoed by the House of Commons justice committee which, in a report published last week, said that the government’s civil legal aid cuts were badly researched and implemented, and have impeded access to justice. 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’

The report is the culmination of a yearlong inquiry into the impact of cuts to civil legal aid introduced in April 2013. It finds that the cuts have ‘failed to meet their objectives’ and ‘harmed access to justice for some litigants’. The report particularly highlights the harm caused to children.

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.

The report went on to say: ”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 embarrassing number of successful legal challenges is testimony to this. The committee recommends that the MoJ undertake a public campaign to combat the widespread impression that legal aid is ‘almost non-existent’.

On domestic violence, 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 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.”

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.

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.”

Image courtesy of Labour’s Photostream on Flickr.

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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