Government accused over legal aid

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Published: Wednesday 4th February 2015 by The News Editor

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The Government has been accused by MPs of rushing through cuts to the legal aid budget without understanding the implications for access to the justice system.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee said the changes – intended to cut £300 million from the £940 million civil legal aid budget – had been pushed through on the basis of “no evidence in many areas, and without making good use of the evidence that it did have in other areas”.

The result had been to “inhibit” access to mediation in family law cases, while the numbers of litigants representing themselves in court had risen – increasing the time taken to deal with cases and adding to the strain on the court service.

The committee said that, despite assurances given to Parliament, the Ministry of Justice did not know whether people who were eligible for legal aid were still able to get it.

“Almost two years after the reforms, the ministry is still playing catch up: it does not know if those still eligible are able to access legal aid; and it does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given,” the committee said.

“Perhaps most worryingly of all, it does not understand, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the public sector.

“It therefore does not know whether the projected £300 million spending reduction in its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere.”

The committee chair, Margaret Hodge, said: “Access to justice is one of the most fundamental principles of our society, and the purpose of legal aid is to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable people enjoy that basic right.

“It is deeply disturbing that the Ministry of Justice’s changes to civil legal aid were based not on evidence, but on an objective to cut costs as quickly as possible.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but resources are not limitless and must be properly targeted at the cases that need it most. We are pleased the committee has acknowledged our reforms have been successful in making the significant savings we had no choice but to find given the financial crisis this Government inherited.

“When the National Audit Office specifically looked at our civil legal aid reforms it was only able to identify small additional costs to the MoJ – approximately 1% of the £300m savings. The NAO also found no clear evidence of wider costs to other parts of government.

“When we began reform we had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at £2 billion a year and even after reform it will remain very generous at around £1.5 billion per year.”

Published: Wednesday 4th February 2015 by The News Editor

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