The drastic cuts to legal aid made by the Ministry of Justice in April 2013 were introduced on the basis of little or no evidence, MPs have claimed.
In a new report, they highlight the surge in the numbers of unrepresented litigants in person since the introduction of the cuts. There has been a jump of 30 per cent in the number of family court cases in which both parties represent themselves.
Implementing reforms to civil legal aid was published by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The PAC is an ‘all party’ committee – that is to say, featuring members of all main parties.
The cuts were introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in order to save money, the report claims, with little or no evidence of the likely social impact.
Close to two years on, the Ministry has still not properly assessed the impact of the cuts, it adds. Instead the MOJ is still playing “catch-up”:
“…it 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.”
The Ministry has shown “little interest” in the social impact of the cuts, the report continues, and cannot say whether the savings made in cutting back legal aid have been outweighed by greater costs elsewhere.
“…The Department therefore does not know whether the savings in the civil legal aid budget represent value for money.”
Labour MP Margaret Hodge is chair of the PAC. She summed up the reports’ findings in scathing language:
“Access to justice is one of the most fundamental principles of our society, and the purpose of legal aid is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people enjoy that basic right. So it is deeply disturbing that the Ministry of Justice’s changes to civil legal aid were based not on evidence but on an objective to cut costs as quickly as possible. The Permanent Secretary told us that “the level of spend” was the “critical” factor driving the reforms.”
The Ministry does not understand the impact of the legal aid cuts, she continued, or even why people went to court or claimed legal aid in the first place.
It was “amazing”, the MP for Barking in London added, that the Ministry had failed to anticipate that cuts to legal aid would cause a drop in the number of referrals to family mediation by solicitors, despite the government’s continuing emphasis on mediation as an alternative to the family courts. As a result, the use of mediation in family disputes dropped by 38 per cent in the first year after the reforms, instead of rising by 74 per cent as the MOJ had anticipated.
The Legal Aid Agency, which administers the payments, spent £141 million less on civil (as opposed to criminal) legal aid in the year to 2014 than it did in the year to 2013: a total of £801 million according to the PAC.
In an official response to the MPs’ report, the MOJ claimed that the UK’s legal aid system had been “one of the most expensive in the world” and was still “very generous”.
Around half of the all litigants in family cases were self-represented before the cuts, it added.