As we celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta, an ambivalent attitude towards justice will cost us all

Justice Alliance welcomes the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report ‘Implementing reforms to civil legal aid’ which exposes the ‘serious implications in terms of both value for money for the taxpayer and access to justice for legal aid claimants’ of the drastic cuts to legal aid.

The report lambastes the Ministry of Justice who ‘Almost two years after the reforms, is still playing catch up’:

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  • It does not know if those still eligible are able to access legal aid;
  • It does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given;
  • It does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the public sector.

It therefore does not know whether the projected £300 million spending reduction its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere.

 The Department therefore does not know whether the savings in the civil legal aid budget represent value for money.

For years campaigners have warned that drastic cuts to legal aid will impact upon the most vulnerable, and short term savings fail to recognise the long term financial and social costs of cuts to legal aid. The Ministry of Justice has consistently shown contempt and disregard for those who work in and understand legal aid and as stated by the report, ‘shows little interest in understanding whether the reduction in spending on civil legal aid is outweighed by additional costs in other parts of the sector as a result of the reforms.’

Despite identifying the potential wider costs to the public sector in 2012, and consulting on its reforms two years before implementation, the report states that the Ministry introduced major changes on the basis of no evidence in many areas, and without making good use of the evidence that it did have. Instead the only evidence of interest to the Ministry was the existing level of spending and a wish to cut legal aid.

The idea that only the existing level of spending and a wish to cut legal aid were important, despite numerous responses to consultations prior to the cuts which warned of the knock on costs in other areas, displays a reckless attitude towards public funds and more importantly towards the rule of law, the idea that we are all equal before the law. By removing legal aid from those who most need it without any attempt to understand the implications is unacceptable.

“The Ministry admits that it still has little understanding of why people go to court and how and why people access legal aid. 

 

The report criticises the Ministry as being ‘slow to fill the considerable gaps in its understanding’, stating it has not properly assessed the full impact of the reforms and has ‘done nothing’ to establish the likelihood or measure the scale of the wider costs of the cuts on the rest of the public sector.

The Ministry was unable to say whether the cuts that it made to legal aid spending have simply shifted costs elsewhere in the public sector.

  • The Ministry has not estimated the likely knock-on costs as a result of increased physical and mental health problems arising from the inability to access advice to resolve legal problems.
  • It believed the most important evidence was the existing level of spending and a wish to cut legal aid.
  • The Ministry states that it is not possible to quantify wider costs to the public sector.
  • The Ministry said it would not ‘be a practical piece of research’ to work with other Departments to estimate costs to their budgets.
  • The Ministry seems unwilling to even ask other departments about any impacts on their spending.
  • Other departments e.g. transport are only too willing to estimate wider benefits to the public purse, despite the inherent difficulties, when carrying out cost benefit analysis to justify spending.
  • More can be done to estimate the wider impacts of reforms, for example, the Legal Action Group commissioned a survey of 1001 GPs to gather evidence about the impact of the reforms on the health and wellbeing of patients. It found that the majority of GPs surveyed had noticed an increase in patients who would have benefitted from legal advice on social welfare issues and that 88% of GPS surveyed agreed that the denial of access to legal advice on social welfare issues can have a negative effect on health.

2014-10-31 09.38.14The report states that Citizens Advice has done considerable work to estimate the likely savings to the public purse as a result of the advice it provides and “We would expect that the Ministry would do similar work to understand the impact of its reforms”.

Despite the clear acceptance by the Ministry that it does not understand what it is doing and has not bothered to understand the impact of cuts to legal aid, the attitude of the Ministry to the significant problem of Litigants in Person, those who represent themselves in court, is astounding. Judges told the Accounts Committee that cases involving Litigants in Person can take 50% longer. The Ministry does not accept the evidence from judges and states it does not believe that cases involving Litigants in Person (LIP) take longer, relying instead on ‘experimental analysis’ to show that cases involving LIP’s were shorter.

However, the Ministry then acknowledged that data used for this analysis is drawn from estimates of hearing lengths made before the actual hearings. As the report points out ‘The analysis that the Ministry referred to states that data analysed “is not intended to provide reliable statistic data to be used for performance monitoring”.’

“The Ministry does not understand the impact of the increase in LIPs on court resources because it does not have reliable information about key aspects of the court system, particularly hearing lengths.”

It is clear from the report that access to justice is being threatened by ‘advice deserts’, which are large areas where there are no legal aid providers. As another example of the ambivalent attitude towards whether people are getting the advice they need, the Ministry admits that it does not know whether people who are eligible for legal aid are able to get it. According to the report, in 53 local authority areas there were fewer than 50 face-to-face civil legal aid cases and in 14 of these areas there were no cases started.

Added to the lack of advice available, ‘The complexity of the justice system may be preventing people who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid from securing access to justice’.   The report recognises that many people are not able to represent themselves effectively in court, but those who do, are increasing in numbers, which ‘may have a negative impact on the administration of justice.’

“The Ministry cannot manage the impact of the increase in litigants in person, because it does not understand the impact that they have on the courts service.”

Access to justice must be an essential requirement of any legal system, but it cannot be effective without practical means to enforce legal rights, in the courts if necessary. This is why legal aid was introduced by the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949. However, as fees paid to legal aid providers have been cut by 10%, on top of a 15 year period in which legal aid fees were not adjusted for inflation, which represented a real terms cut of 34% the quality of legal advice has decreased. As the report recognises ‘The quality of face-to-face legal advice is unacceptably low, and the Agency does not understand the link between the price it pays providers and the quality of advice’. This has serious implications in terms of both value for money for the taxpayer and access to justice for legal aid claimants.

“The Ministry did not undertake any research on [costs of legal aid cuts to budgets of other departments] before implementing the reforms and told us that it does not intend to do any further work to measure the impact or cost of the reforms on the wider public sector. Without this information, the Ministry is not able to know the full impact of the spending reductions from its reform and cannot know whether or not the spending reductions to the legal aid budget outweigh additional costs to other parts of government.”

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