March 2015 – Justice Committee criticise the 2013 legal aid changes
No one working in the legal aid sector will be remotely surprised by the findings made by the Commons Justice Committee’s recent report on the impact of the cuts to civil legal aid. The report, confirms that the MoJ successfully made £2 billion of savings from a budget of £9.8 billion but at great cost to access to justice. The changes have meant that those who need legal aid the most cannot get it. All of the problems being identified now were flagged up in the consultation process by many, many organisations, our firm included.
In summary, the Committee have found that:
- Those who are most vulnerable are finding it harder to access legal aid, with the result there has been a significant underspend on the legal aid budget
- Cases that would previously have qualified for legal aid are becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget (presumably by turning into care proceedings rather than being dealt with at a private law level)
- Many of those who seek legal aid are unable to secure the necessary evidence of domestic abuse
- The exceptional funding scheme isn’t working
- There are fewer providers in the legal advice and assistance sectors
- There has been an increase in the number of litigants in person which has led to the court having to use more resources to assist them
- There has been a sharp reduction in the use of mediation
- There is no evidence that the MoJ has achieved value for money. Significant savings have been achieved in the legal aid budget but at what cost to other public services.
The repercussions of the changes were obvious to all those working in the sector at the time they were proposed and we are certainly seeing the fall out of the reforms first hand in our offices. There are many more clients now who either cannot get legal aid or cannot obtain the domestic violence evidence to secure legal aid. There are more litigants in person who, understandably, are not familiar with the court process and this means longer hearings and cases that don’t resolve as quickly as they might.
The full report can be found here
In spite of these challenges we will always check carefully whether clients may be eligible for Legal Aid and help to obtain the necessary gateway evidence required. We work closely with local domestic abuse support agencies to ensure that clients who need it can get access to legal advice and representation.
Many clients are unaware that Legal Aid is still available for family mediation, and we will always explore this option with clients who would be financially eligible. We provide mediation from our offices in Newcastle and South Shields, and can also now offer meetings in Hexham.