Social Welfare Lawyers in the Centre of Birmingham

Civil Legal Aid Cuts “Failed To target Help Where Needed”

The above quote is the conclusion of the cross party Parliamentary Justice Committee in their report Impact of Changes to Civil Legal Aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders’ Act 2012 published on 12 March 2015.

It should be remembered that the Committee consisted of five Conservative members, five Labour members, one Plaid Cymru and one Liberal Democrat member (the Chair, Sir Alan Beith).

In its summary the Committee reported the Ministry of Justice’s four objectives for the reforms to be to:

• Discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense;

• Target legal aid to those who need it most;

• Make significant savings in the cost of the scheme;

• Deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer.   The Committee’s overall conclusion was that “while it had made significant savings in the costs of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other 3 out of 4 of its stated objectives for the reforms”.

In terms of the operation of the Legal Aid Agency the Committee stated:

178.  The reduction in the payment error rate which has been achieved by the Legal Aid Agency is highly commendable but we do not, realistically, think it would be imperilled by a policy decision not to investigate the origin of tiny sums of money.  The Legal Aid Agency’s duty is to administer public money responsibly, not to waste its resources on irrelevant or de minimis inquiries.  We are concerned at the various examples we have seen of the Legal Aid Agency failing to give sufficient weight to its vital role in ensuring access to justice.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is worthwhile quoting extensively from these given the importance of the recommendations (though we do not quote from all recommendations here – mainly concentrating on those which are likely to affect Gypsies and Travellers most):

3.   We recommend that the Ministry of Justice undertake a public campaign to combat the widespread impression that Legal Aid is almost non-existent…

9.  The number of exceptional cases funding applications granted has been far below the Ministry of Justice’s estimate.  We have heard details of cases where the refusal of exceptional cases funding to vulnerable litigants is surprising on the facts before us.  We conclude therefore that the low number of grants together with the details of cases refused exceptional cases funding means the scheme is not acting as a safety net…

10. …We note the Court of Appeal Judgment which found that the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance was unlawful, and that 3 of the 5 litigants who had been refused legal aid should have had their applications for exceptional cases funding granted….

For link to this case see :  http://www.communitylawpartnership.co.uk/noticeboard/other-legal-cases/279-r-gudanaviciene-a-others-v-the-director-of-legal-aid-casework-a-the-lord-chancellor

11.  The exceptional cases funding scheme has not done the job Parliament intended, protecting access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society.  This is because of the failure of the Legal Aid Agency, and the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance, which was recently held to be unlawful, to give sufficient weight to access to justice in the decision-making process.  The wrongful refusal of applications for exceptional cases funding may have resulted in miscarriages of justice.  All agencies involved must closely examine their actions and take immediate steps to ensure the exceptional cases funding scheme is the robust safety net envisaged by Parliament…

13.  We were surprised to learn that exceptional cases funding applications are not determined by officials with specialist knowledge of the relevant fields of law.  We are particularly concerned by the impact that this has on the accessibility of the scheme for vulnerable individuals seeking funding. We recommend the Legal Aid Agency revise the staffing of its Exceptional Cases Funding Scheme so as to reduce the time taken for lawyers to complete the form and so as to make the process more accessible to laypeople…

23.  The National Audit Office found that 14 local authority areas saw no face to face Civil Legal Aid work at all in 2013-14, and very small numbers of cases were started in a further 39 local authority areas.  We are deeply concerned that this may indicate the existence of a substantial number of ‘advice deserts’…

24.  We urged the Government in 2011 to carry out research into the geographical distribution of legal aid providers to ensure sufficient provision to protect access to justice.  Not only did the Ministry of Justice fail to heed our warning, it has also failed to monitor the impact of the legal aid reforms on the geographical provision of providers.  We do not know for certain if there are advice deserts in England and Wales, and nor does the Ministry of Justice.  This work needs to be carried out immediately because once capacity and expertise are lost the Ministry of Justice will find it difficult, and potentially expensive, to restore them.  In some areas it may already be too late…

30… We recommend the Legal Aid Agency adopts a policy that ensures the Official Solicitor is able to properly represent people without litigation capacity, given the consequences for access to justice for highly vulnerable individuals if he cannot do so…

39… Fundamentally, the courts need more funding to cope with the numbers of self-represented litigants appearing before them and this is an area which should attract some of the underspend from the civil legal aid budget.  Only with assistance will the courts be able to ensure access to justice.  It is imperative that litigants in person are given every possible assistance to make their cases clearly and effectively…

46.  We note in particular the frustration experienced by housing and debt advisors when clients stand in danger of losing their homes because of an inability to access advice earlier due to the scope changes… 

47.  The Ministry of Justice has avoided quantifying the level of knock-on costs arising from the reforms.  Without this information the Ministry of Justice is unable to say whether it has achieved its objective of significant financial savings to the taxpayer.  We recommend that the Ministry of Justice conduct a post-hoc cost-benefit analysis of the legal aid reforms…

48.  We reiterate the recommendation from our Report on the Government’s proposed reform of legal aid: that Government departments should be penalised for poor decision-making that leads to increased costs for the courts system. 

CLP along with Friends, Families and Travellers, Garden Court Chambers Housing Team and the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit put in submissions to the Committee during their Inquiry.  Well done to all those who put in submissions.

The Government have now cynically brushed off the recommendations of the Justice Committee.  It appears that this Government has contempt both for the courts and for eminent Parliamentary committees.

For a report on the Government’s response see the No Mad Laws website at: http://www.nomadlaws.co.uk/news/58-government-dismisses-call-for-legal-aid-review