The Legal Services Board (LSB) has stepped carefully into the debate over legal aid cuts by highlighting the increasing number of people handling their legal problems alone.
In its response to the government’s review of LASPO, the LSB said consumers whose finances were “stretched” but not enough for them to qualify for legal aid were the least likely to use a lawyer.
In the consultation on the LSB’s 2018/19 business plan, the Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives all urged the LSB to take a policy position on legal aid.
However, the LSB’s position in response was that, while it would “use the evidence from our research to highlight where public policy decisions have implications for the regulatory objectives”, how government chose to allocate public money was ultimately a question for it and Parliament.
“We are not in a position to understand or comment on the trade-offs involved in allocating tax revenues amongst many different possible areas of spend,” it said, in the response to that consultation.
The LASPO response said the LSB was “concerned by” – and the Ministry of Justice should “have regard to” – evidence that, following the LASPO reforms , there were falls in family private law and domestic violence cases where both parties were represented and in mediation assessments.
The oversight regulator was equally concerned that Pakistani, black African and mixed ethnic groups were “proportionately the highest users of legal aid”, and consumers from lower social groups used legal aid “around twice as much in percentage terms” as those from higher groups.
“Affordability of legal services is a key concern for people with mental health problems and their carers and consumers with learning disabilities,” the LSB said.
“Changes in legal aid could therefore have a particular impact for such vulnerable consumers.
“There is a statistical link between getting early legal advice and resolving problems sooner. At any stage in dealing with a legal issue, people who did not receive early advice were 20% less likely than average to have their issue resolved.”
The LSB added that there were “misunderstandings amongst consumers about the type of legal issue for which legal aid is available”.
According to the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s annual Tracker Survey, the proportion of consumers using legal aid grew from 5% in 2012 to 8% in 2014, but was down to 2% by this year.
Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the LSB, said: “Our research shows that, in recent years, a growing proportion of individuals are handling their legal problems alone and that a declining proportion are seeking advice.
“Actual or perceived costs have come to the fore as a key factor in determining what action people take when faced with a legal problem.
“We think it is important to look at what has happened to consumers who are no longer able to access legal aid following the reforms.
“Research suggests that changes in legal aid may have disproportionately affected certain groups of people such as particular ethnic groups and those from the C2DE social groups.
“We are also concerned about whether the reforms may have had knock-on effects elsewhere in the justice system and also more broadly in other areas of public spending such as health.”
The LSB response said that despite its initiatives to increase competition and enable legal services providers to deliver “more innovative and cost-effective” services, it remained the case that, “all else equal, reductions in legal aid carry the risk of increasing the number of ‘stretched consumers’ who are the least likely to use a lawyer”.
This could “adversely affect both the ability of the consumer to handle their case effectively (and therefore the fairness of the outcome) and also the efficient and effective running of the court system”.
The LSB said the proportion of private family law cases where both sides were represented fell from 50% in 2011 to 22% in 2015, with “larger falls” after the implementation of LASPO.
“There may be a number of reasons for the rise in self-representation. To the extent that such a rise has been caused by either a reduction in legal aid or a lack of understanding that legal aid is available, then this is a cause for concern.”
The LSB said legally aided family mediation assessments were down by over 50% in 2014/15 compared to 2011/12.