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UK government doesn't yet know how legal aid cuts have hurt other public services

Legal aid spending has fallen by £728m in the last decade and in that time there has been a 9% fall in the proportion of households with access to housing legal advice, the National Audit Office has found

legal aid spending

Legal aid spending has been cut over the last decade and that has meant fewer places for turn for vulnerable people who need legal advice. Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

The government cannot tell if a decade of cuts to legal aid spending has been value for money as it may have had a knock-on effect on other public services, a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

The Ministry of Justice has achieved its aim of significantly reducing legal aid spending in the last decade, cutting from £728m off the £2.5bn bill in 2012-13 to £1.8bn in 2022-23.

But that has had a knock-on effect on access to legal advice for vulnerable people. There was a 9% fall in the proportion of the population in England and Wales within 10 kilometres of housing advice. The fall from 73% in 2013-14 to 64% a decade later comes as the number of renters facing eviction proceedings is rising.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The Ministry of Justice has succeeded in its objective of significantly reducing spending on legal aid. However, it still lacks a complete understanding of the wider costs arising from the reforms and so cannot demonstrate a spending reduction for the public purse overall. Nor does it collect sufficient data to understand whether people entitled to legal aid are able to access it.

“The MoJ must ensure that access to legal aid, a core element of access to justice, is supported by a sustainable and resilient legal aid market, where capacity meets demand. It is concerning that MoJ continues to lack an understanding of whether those eligible for legal aid can access it, particularly given available data, which suggest that access to legal aid may be worsening.”

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in April 2013 to reduce spending on legal aid.

Now, in real terms, civil legal aid fees are approximately half what they were 28 years ago, the report found.

That has called into question the sustainability of legal aid markets with some providers telling the NAO they plan to reduce or withdraw legal aid services in the near feature or face difficulties recruiting staff.

The NAO consultation also found evidence of costs that have shifted from legal aid funding to elsewhere in the public sector. For example, some local authorities are funding legal advice for immigration cases to mitigate costs to themselves later on.

The lack of local offices has meant some firms have opted to provide advice remotely but this has led to unmet need, particularly for housing and immigration cases and advice in police stations.

Law Society of England and Wales vice president Richard Atkinson said the problems with the legal system “can no longer be ignored” and urged government to invest in legal aid.

“This report comes at a timely moment for the future of civil and criminal legal aid,” said Atkinson

“Both systems are on their knees, with evidence showing that it is becoming increasingly difficult for legal aid providers to sustain a business.

“It is a decade since the UK government implemented the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which cut large areas from civil legal aid overnight.

“The Law Society’s research shows the result of this legislation is large legal aid deserts. Millions of people now live in areas where they can no longer access the help and advice that Parliament has said they are entitled to.

“The people who are affected most by this are families facing eviction, victims of abuse seeking the protection they need or a vulnerable person denied access to the care they’re entitled to.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our priority has always been to ensure legal aid is available to those who need it most – evidenced by the fact that in the last year alone, we have spent nearly £2bn helping people facing legal difficulties, including thousands of families and domestic abuse victims.

“This month alone, we announced proposals for a £21.1m pay boost for criminal legal aid lawyers and we have already increased most criminal legal aid fees by 15% – ensuring representation is available when needed. This is on top of our ongoing root-and-branch review into civil legal aid. We will now consider the NAO’s findings closely and report back in due course.”

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