Legal aid data collection “too great a burden” on providers

Romeo: We’re careful not to put too much of a burden on providers

Collecting data on the distances people travel to access legal aid and lawyers to represent them “would put too much of a burden on providers,” the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said yesterday.

Antonia Romeo also told MPs on the public accounts committee that the Home Office was pumping £1.4m into the Law Society’s immigration accreditation scheme, to help legal aid firms cope with the impact of the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

The National Audit Office said last month that the MoJ “does not know whether everyone eligible for legal aid can access it” and “still lacks an understanding of the full costs and benefits of its reforms”.

At a follow-up hearing of the House of Commons public accounts committee, Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice select committee, asked what data the MoJ collected on the distance people had to travel to access legal aid and solicitors to deliver it.

Jane Harbottle, chief executive of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), said that kind of data was not collected “routinely”, and instead the LAA monitored the contracts it had with providers.

Ms Romeo said: “We’re careful not to put too much of a burden on providers. We ensure we’ve got the providers and Jane monitors their extent. Do you think the providers would welcome us asking for a lot more data?”

In response to another question from Sir Bob, Ms Harbottle said a major provider of immigration advice in the South-West of England pulled out because of “an inability to build work” as a result of “processing backlogs” at the Home Office.

After this, and with other firms “struggling” in the South-West, the area with the lowest provision for immigration work, the LAA launched a “matching service”.

This resulted in 31 providers in other parts of the country saying they had capacity to take on extra immigration work, which would have to be deal with remotely.

Ms Harbottle said she had made the Home Office “aware of the issue”, and the “general tensions” in the system.

Meanwhile, it emerged that the Home Office, rather than the MoJ, funded not only a 15% increase in legal aid fees for immigration lawyers, announced in the autumn, but a further £1.4m to help those at legal aid firms obtain Law Society accreditation.

Jerome Glass, director general of the policy and strategy group at the MoJ, said that despite the issues in the South-West, there had been an increase in immigration providers in the past year, and the extra 15% should help improve coverage.

Ms Romeo described the Home Office as “funding the downstream consequences of their policy”.

The NAO noted the increase in litigants in person in private family cases in the past decade and criticised HM Courts & Tribunal Service’s failure to look at the impact of this on court costs since 2018 and in any case only recorded estimated, not actual, hearing lengths.

Jason Latham, development director at HM Courts & Tribunals Service, told the committee that private family law hearing times had increased for “all parties”, whether they were represented or not.

Mr Latham said “one of the biggest trends” was that the number of 30-minute hearings had decreased and hearings over 60 minutes increased.

Litigants in person took no longer than parties with lawyers to get a resolution of their case, he added.

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