Drastic cuts to the provision of legal aid have made access to justice much harder, MPs have declared.
The cuts, introduced in April 2013, had led to “distressing consequences” and poorer outcomes for individuals involved in litigation, says the Commons Justice Select Committee in a new report. Children, in particular, have been placed at a disadvantage and risk lifelong consequences as a result.
The Committee highlights underspending in the limited legal aid budget still available, attributing this to a failure to make the funds fully accessible to those eligible. It calls on the government to improve the quantity and quality of public information available.
The MPs also addressed the unexpectedly low number of successful applications for “exceptional case” legal aid funding, saying:
“Parliament intended the exceptional cases funding scheme to act as a safety net, protecting access to justice for the most vulnerable. We are very concerned that it has not achieved that aim. We heard of a number of cases where, to our surprise, exceptional case funding was not granted.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had been “too slow” to respond to the situation, the report claimed.
The government was unable to demonstrate that the cuts had delivered real value overall for taxpayers, the MPs insisted.
Liberal Democrat MP the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith is Chair of the Committee. He said the country had faced an urgent financial situation in 2010 and the government had succeeded in making £2 billion of savings from an overall legal aid budget of £9.8 billion, “a very challenging target”.
The MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed continued:
“But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.”
The report was entitled Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It is available here.