MPs on a House of Commons committee have openly criticised the Ministry of Justice for introducing legal aid reforms “without taking account of the potential consequences”.
Members sitting on the Public Accounts Committee met last week to discuss civil legal aid reforms and discussion centred around the apparent lack of interest still being shown by MoJ officials into the knock-on effects of those reforms.
In an official statement the all-party committee said the MoJ is still playing ‘catch up’ nearly two years after narrowing the scope of civil legal aid, and that ‘considerable gaps’ in its understanding remain unaddressed.
The statement formed part of a report released by the committee last week, focussing on the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
The report revealed how the MoJ is set to meet its £300m annual cost cutting target, but also singularly failed to answer the question of whether that saving was being outweighed by additional expenses incurred in other areas of the legal system which are now overstretched following the restriction of legal aid.
The report said: “The MoJ does not know if those still eligible are able to access legal aid and it does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given.
“Perhaps most worryingly of all, it does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on effects of its reforms across the public sector.”
In the face of this open criticism the MOJ has defended its reforms and pointed to the National Audit Office, which says it has “found no clear evidence” the reforms have had an effect on other parts of government.
Chair of the committee Margaret Hodge (Barking & Dagenham) said she personally found it “deeply disturbing” reforms had been implemented based on an objective to cut costs as quickly as possible rather than on evidence.
“The MoJ still doesn’t grasp how its reforms affect people,” she said. “It has little understanding of why people must go to court and how or why people access legal aid in the first place. In fact, it only commissioned research into these issues more than a year after its reforms were implemented.
“Unfortunately we are now in a situation where there are signs the complexity of the justice system may be preventing people who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid from securing effective access to justice.”
Hodge pointed to a number of telling statistics, including the fact there has been a 30 per cent rise in the number of cases starting in family courts where both parties were litigants in person.
Other statistics showed a rise from 64 per cent to 89 per cent of contested family cases reaching the courts from the period before the reforms compared to the corresponding period in the year after the reforms. Mediation for family law matters has fallen by 38% in the year after the reforms, when the MoJ predicted it would increase by 74 per cent.
The report concluded the MoJ must have known solicitors were the medium through which people were being referred to mediation, but failed to foresee the obvious – removing legal aid for solicitors would reduce referrals.
The committee also said the ministry does not know whether people who are still eligible for legal aid are able to access it.
As a result the committee has called for future decisions to be based on greater evidence, collection of reliable data and reviews of processes for those affected would need to face as a result of any changes.
Further recommendations have been made, including new targets to improve the quality of legal advice, closer examination of mediation take-up rates and a full evaluation of the wider costs to the public sector of LASPO.
In a damning statement from Hodge, which came when the report was published last week, she said: “While the ministry is on track to make a significant and rapid reduction in the cost of legal aid, it is far from clear that these savings represent value for money.”
An MoJ spokesman said the ministry was “pleased its work had been recognised as having saved the £300m we had no choice but to find given the financial crisis this government inherited”.
The spokesman also dismissed claims the NAO had failed to note expenses being incurred by other agencies. They said it had failed to find “clear evidence of wider costs to other parts of government”.
If you need legal advice and are unsure whether you still qualify following the cuts made by the coalition government why not use our legal aid calculator to find out if you can receive free and impartial help with your legal issues?