Some of the over £970m earmarked by the government for civil and criminal court reform should be used instead to stem the collapse in spending on legal aid, the Legal Action Group (LAG) has suggested.
LAG argued that the civil legal aid system was “in free fall” and the underspend in its budget over the last three years should be reinvested in an “innovation and early intervention” fund.
In a report published in the latest edition of its magazine Legal Action, LAG said the government was investing over £700m in civil courts and tribunals and over £270m in the criminal courts, “with a particular focus on technology and digitisation”.
In parallel with this “necessary work”, LAG said the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should review the legal aid system, “with a view to making changes” to improve accessibility and “some of the investment targeted at court reform might be better used for improving access to civil justice” through legal aid.
“Disregard for both the bureaucratic and wider societal costs of legal aid reforms enacted in the previous Parliament can only further undermine access to justice for the public, especially for the poor and vulnerable.”
LAG said an independent review of the LASPO reforms should begin immediately, and although they had “undoubtedly been effective” in reducing the cost of legal aid by over £600m, there had been a “blatant disregard” of the wider costs and consequences to society.
These included the rise in the number of litigants in person, increased number of evictions in the county courts, an “accelerated trend of debt and benefit-related destitution” and growth of domestic abuse.
LAG said the Legal Help workload was currently operating at “approximately one-quarter of pre-LASPO levels”, and continuing to fall.
“Figures released by the MoJ demonstrate how policymakers’ assumptions that the immediate disruptive effects of implementing LASPO would be followed by a ‘steady state’ have been wide of the mark.”
LAG said the MoJ’s telephone gateway, set up to provide telephone advice on social welfare law issues, was “overburdened and unable to meet the demand for assistance in matters related to debt, special educational needs and discrimination”.
The report said the number of housing cases receiving legal aid had halved immediately after LASPO and continued to fall since 2014, with the figure for spring 2016 18% down on the same period in 2015.
Family mediation matter starts were still only 60% of pre-LASPO levels, despite the legal obligation to attend mediation information meetings introduced two years ago.
LAG described the number of matters receiving funding under the ‘exceptional cases’ scheme as “alarmingly low”, partly because lawyers were not paid if cases were unsuccessful.
While the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) budget had been cut by 25% since LASPO, administration costs in 2015/16 increased to over £100m, “around a fifth of the amount currently allocated to civil and family legal aid”.
LAG said “the greater the complexity of the scope rules, gate-keeping procedures, and eligibility and evidence tests that the LAA has had to apply, the more costly and dysfunctional the administration of the civil legal aid system has become”.
It concluded that the system focused on “tackling crises rather than resolving the underlying issues”.
LAG called for the underspend in the civil legal aid budget over the last three years to be “reinvested in an innovation and early intervention fund”, which could be handed out to developers of online tools or public legal education projects.
LAG added that the MoJ should set a target for savings from reduced bureaucracy and reinvest the money in frontline services.