The government ‘does not understand’ the impact of decade-old cuts on legal aid

MoJ: Lack of curiosity about declining provider numbers

The Government does not understand how costs may have been shifted to other parts of the justice system or the public sector as a result of cuts to legal aid spending, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned.

The committee said the Ministry of Justice had taken steps to address issues with the market sustainability of legal aid through reviews of criminal and civil legal aid, but that the pace of its response was “worryingly slow”.

The report, Value for money through legal aidwas published just before parliament adjourned on Friday and follows the National Audit Office’s report into the government’s management of legal aid earlier this year, which said the Ministry of Justice “does not know whether everyone eligible for legal aid can access it has access to” and “still does not have access to legal aid”. understand the full costs and benefits” of the LASPO reforms introduced in 2013.

MPs said there had been a real £728m (28%) fall in legal aid spending over 2022-2023, compared to a decade earlier.

But both the Ministry of Justice and the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) had “failed to improve their understanding of where costs may have shifted to other areas of the justice system or wider government”.

Although the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that withdrawing early legal advice on issues such as immigration and family could have led to additional costs, it had “failed to make progress in identifying or addressing them”.

Meanwhile, HMCTS had failed to improve the data it collects on personal litigants (LiPs), which was “extremely disappointing”.

MPs also said they were “deeply concerned” by the “lack of curiosity” from the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) about the impact of “the declining number of providers on people’s access to legal aid”.

The capacity to provide housing and immigration advice, and timetables for police stations were “of particular importance”.

There were areas in the country where people could only access housing advice remotely, but the Ministry of Justice and LAA “did not know enough about the impact of this on vulnerable groups who may find it more difficult to access legal aid in this way”.

The committee recommended that the Ministry of Justice and the LAA set out “how they plan to improve the data they collect on demand for and access to legal aid” so that they could better check whether an area had “adequate provision for a certain category of legislation to meet demand”.

This should include details of “how they plan to take into account specific local variation such as deprivation or access to public transport and demographics such as disabilities” and “the extent to which capacity constraints may prevent people from accessing legal aid in areas where there are providers”.

The Ministry of Justice should also “make clear what the options are for those who cannot benefit from remote advice” and “take specific account of vulnerable groups in areas where face-to-face legal aid is not available, whose problems may be too complex are to by telephone”.

On shifting legal aid costs to other public services, the PAC said it recognized it would not be possible to calculate a precise figure.

However, the Ministry of Justice should determine how it plans to work with other government departments – such as the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department of Health and Social Care – to “better understand where reforms may have led to cost savings and the potential magnitude of these costs”.

This included how it planned to work with HMCTS to “improve available quantitative analyses” on the impact of LiPs on the administration of justice, as the committee recommended in 2015.

MPs said they were not convinced that the Ministry of Justice had “taken sufficient measures to ensure the future sustainability of the legal aid market”. The review of civil legal aid, now on hold ahead of the general election, was “particularly concerning”.

The PAC added: “Low compensation could impact companies’ ability to train and recruit new staff and impact their long-term sustainability.”

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