In a report published today, the Justice Select Committee (JSC) has criticized Government cuts to legal aid for having failed to meet their objectives and having ‘harmed access to justice for some litigants’. The full report can be accessed here.
The Committee’s report, entitled the ‘Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’, is the result of a year-long inquiry into the effect of cuts to civil legal aid introduced in April 2013. Within the report, the Committee acknowledged that the Ministry of Justice had achieved its primary objective of making savings to the legal aid budget, but expressed concern that:
- The Ministry of Justice had failed to carry out adequate research before implementing the cuts.
- Not enough had been done to make the public aware of what issues legal aid remains available for.
- The mechanism for funding exceptional cases outside of the normal framework of the legal aid scheme is failing to provide a sufficient safety net.
- The Ministry of Justice has spent less than anticipated on legal aid following the cuts as a result of an overly restrictive and bureaucratic approach and poor provision of information on the availability of legal aid, with the effect that vulnerable people are unable to obtain access to justice. The Committee observed that ‘we have heard ample evidence that legal aid is not reaching many of those eligible for it. We do not therefore accept the Minister’s assurance that the Ministry has extensive measures in place to monitor whether vulnerable people are able to access legal assistance.’
- For the Government to pursue an appeal against the decision of the High Court finding that the proposed implementation of a ‘residence test’ for legal aid was unlawful and discriminatory would be a questionable use of taxpayer’s money.
- The Ministry of Justice should review the impact of the cuts on children’s rights and consider in particular how trafficked and separated children are able to access legal assistance.
- The evidential criteria which must be met for victims of domestic violence to access legal aid in private family law cases, may be preventing a proportion of victims from qualifying for assistance.
- Urgent research is needed to establish whether there are ‘advice deserts’ in England and Wales, where legally aided advice and assistance is not available.
- There had been a rise in the number of litigants in person as a result of the cuts. The courts require more funding in order to deal with the increase in litigants in person.
- Legislation should be introduced to prevent the cross-examination of complainants by their alleged abusers in the family courts.
- A policy should be introduced to provide funding in all cases involving a vulnerable adult who lacks capacity, where the official solicitor is needed.
- The Government should consult on the formal regulation of McKenzie friends.
- The changes to legal aid focus disproportionately on the crisis point of a case, for example the juncture at which a person is to be evicted. The Government has failed to appreciate the cost savings that can be achieved by providing advice before a problem escalates and arrives at court.
- The Government has failed to quantify the knock-on costs of the cuts, for example the cost to local authorities of accommodating families who had been evicted. The Ministry of Justice should carry out an ad-hoc cost/benefit analysis of the reforms.
- Other Government Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, should be penalized for poor decision making which results in increased costs for the court system.