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'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. 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 Department therefore does not know whether the savings in the civil legal aid budget represent value for money.'Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, 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.Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, comments:
So 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. The Permanent Secretary told us that “the level of spend” was the "critical" factor driving the reforms.
The Ministry still does not understand what its reforms mean for people. It has little understanding of why people go to court and how and why people access legal aid in the first place, and only commissioned research into these issues in 2014 – more than a year after its reforms were implemented.
There are signs that the complexity of the justice system may be preventing people who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid from securing effective access to justice.
The Magistrates’ Association raised concerns about the increase in the number of people representing themselves in court – known as litigants in person – caused by the reforms, especially in cases involving children.
There has been a 30% rise in the number of cases starting in family courts in which both parties were representing themselves, and the number of contested family cases reaching the courts rose from 64% in the three months before the reforms to 89% a year later. The Magistrates’ Association told us that these cases with litigants in person also take longer and place additional pressure on the courts service.
Moreover, the Ministry’s approach to implementing the reforms has inhibited access to mediation for family law cases. Amazingly, it failed to foresee that removing legal aid funding for solicitors would reduce the number of referrals to family mediation.
Mediations for family law matters fell by 38% in the year after the reforms, rather than increasing by 74% as the Ministry expected. Referrals to the assessment meetings that determine suitability for family mediation fell by 56%.
The Ministry does not know, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the wider public sector as a result of increased physical and mental health problems caused by the inability to access advice to resolve legal problems.
It therefore has no idea whether the projected £300 million spending reduction in its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere. It does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given. In short, there is not a lot the Ministry does know.
Therefore, while the Ministry is on track to make a significant and rapid reduction in the cost of legal aid, it is far from clear that these savings represent value for money.
It needs to get on and urgently review the impact of its reforms and, where necessary, act to address issues such as cost-shifting and people struggling to access justice.'
'The PAC’s conclusion that the Government’s cuts to family legal aid have significantly hindered access to justice for many ordinary British people comes as no surprise to those of us who work with separating families every day.The following Conclusions and Recommendations are taken from the report:
The PAC’s report shows that family lawyers, far from fitting the stereotype of money-hungry solicitors pushing people towards expensive court battles, in fact played a key role in keeping family disputes out of court before the legal aid cuts were implemented. The rise in contested proceedings and drop in mediation numbers since the removal of family legal aid is no coincidence - it confirms that timely and appropriate legal advice is crucial to helping separating couples manage conflict and costs during their divorce.'
She continues: 'The PAC has recommended that the Ministry review the impact of the reforms and the ongoing issues that the cuts to legal aid are causing for access to justice in this country. Resolution has long been pressing for a wholesale impact assessment.
Resolution proposes that that funding be made available for initial legal advice in family cases. It may be a combination of services, so that people are able to receive help from a legal professional at the points in the process where they need it most – so even if they end up representing themselves, they have an initial discussion about what they need or want to do.
This would provide a more comprehensive system of support and enable vulnerable people to access the domestic violence gateway to legal aid, and find out about all of the dispute resolution options available to them. It is also likely to result in a higher referral rate to mediation, as it would restore a major source point of access that existed before the cuts to legal aid. This would significantly reduce the number of litigants in person using the courts, whose issues do not always require court time but who, without access to legal advice, invariably think that court is the only option.'
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