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'The Ministry of Justice is on track to make significant and quick reductions in its spending on civil legal aid. However, it has been slower to think through how and why people access civil legal aid; the scale of the additional costs to the Ministry likely to be generated by people choosing to represent themselves; and the impact on the ability and willingness of providers to provide legal services for the fees paid.Without this understanding, the Ministry’s implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.'The Ministry expected that removing funding for civil legal aid for private family law matters would divert people away from courts and increase mediation referrals by 9,000 per year. However, there were 17,246 fewer mediation assessments in 2013-14, a 56% decrease from 2012-13. Litigation has only just started to decrease in the areas of family law no longer covered by civil legal aid. In the year following the changes, there has been a 30% increase in the number of family court cases in which neither party has legal representation. This is likely to create extra costs for the Ministry and wider government, with the NAO estimating additional cost to HM Courts & Tribunals Service of at least £3m a year, together with direct costs to the Ministry of approximately £400,000.
'The MoJ and their colleagues at the Treasury will no doubt welcome the findings of today's report, which sets out the reduction in spending. However, the NAO has confirmed what those of us who work with separating families have been warning of for years: that these cuts were poorly thought through and that they’ve put the courts under more pressure.The full report, Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, is available to download here.
With more people representing themselves, family cases invariably take longer, taking up more of the courts’ time and resource – with the result that the family courts really are at breaking point.
The reforms have also not had the effect the government stated they would – diverting more separating couples away from the courts. Mediation referrals went down, not up, in the year following the legal aid changes, by some 56%.
What’s more, the report highlights the unquantifiable impact on other areas of public sector spending. Separation is stressful, and this is made even worse if people don’t have access to legal advice – there is inevitably an impact on their health and well being, and their financial circumstances, for which the state ends up footing the bill elsewhere.
The Government needs to commit to a full impact assessment as soon as possible in the light of this report. £300m a year sounds like a lot of money, but when you take into account the devastating impact divorce and separation can have on people’s lives, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, then the financial, social, and emotional costs far outweigh the savings.'
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