The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday announced its review of civil legal aid, but it will not report until next year – meaning any change is unlikely to happen before the next election.
The review will commission an external economic analysis of the civil legal aid market to better understand how people access funding and support.
It will encompass all categories of civil and family legal aid provision, look at international comparisons and “consider value for taxpayers’ money of future policy options and take into account wider budgetary restraints on the department”, the MoJ said.
“Once complete, the government can consider options from the review for moving to a more effective, more efficient and more sustainable system for legal providers and the people who rely on legal aid.”
Justice minister Lord Bellamy said: “This comprehensive review will give us a wealth of evidence on the civil legal aid systems, how services are provided, and of the issues facing the market.”
The government will issue a tender this month inviting third parties to bid to undertake the external analysis. There was no indication from the MoJ as to when in 2024 the review would report.
The Law Society described the review as “long overdue” but argued there was “an urgent need for immediate investment in civil legal aid” while the review was going on.
President Lubna Shuja said: “Over the past decade, the number of legal aid firms has nearly halved, while the number of people struggling to represent themselves in the family courts has trebled and court backlogs are ever increasing.”
The Law Society’s legal aid deserts maps show that, across England and Wales, 52m people (88%) do not have access to a local education law provider, 40m (67%) to a local community care legal aid provider and 23.5m (39%) to a local legal aid provider for housing advice
Ms Shuja added: “The last time fees were increased was in 1996, over 25 years ago. On top of this, the government imposed a further 10% fee-cut in 2011. This represents a real-terms cut of 49.4% in fees to 2022.
“Firms have been closing their legal aid departments year-on-year, as it’s no longer financially viable and the number of providers with civil legal aid contracts has been falling. “Law Society analysis suggests that the number of providers starting legal aid work could drop by a third by 2025.”
Th Bar Council echoed the Law Society’s statement, noting that any policy decisions contained in the report may not be implemented before the next general election, due at the end of 2024.
Nick Vineall KC, the new chair of the Bar Council, said: “A review of civil legal is essential and long overdue. The cuts to civil legal aid a decade ago have had a profound impact on access to justice and on the lawyers who undertake legally aided work…
“The widespread closure of advice centres and high street solicitors providing early legal advice has created multiple problems in the system. Unnecessary and costly court cases, an increase in people struggling to represent themselves, and increasingly stressful work for lawyers having to firefight.
“Whilst it is important that the review is comprehensive, a lot of the evidence for change already exists. We are concerned that the timetable for the review is too slow given the year-on-year decline in providers.”
He too called for “interim measures” to shore up existing provision during the review.
CILEX chair Professor Chris Bones said: “CILEX welcomes the government’s review as a positive opportunity to think creatively to solve the current sustainability issues that are facing civil legal aid.
“We look forward to taking part in a broad and collaborative approach to explore options that use all available business models and types of lawyers, including CILEX Lawyers, to build a more competent and sustainable system.”
Back in 2017, the Bach Commission on Access to Justice – an initiative of the left-wing Fabian Society headed by former Labour justice minister Lord Willy Bach – concluded that the right to justice should be enshrined in an Act of Parliament to ensure that nobody was denied legal assistance because they could not afford it.
The commission concluded the present civil system was “in crisis” and that eligibility requirements under the LASPO legal aid rules were “excessively stringent”.