Public Accounts Committee unhappy with implementation of legal aid cuts
Drastic cuts to civil legal aid have been carried out by the Ministry of Justice ‘in the dark’ – without any knowledge or concern about their impact or any way of measuring if policy objectives are being met, according to a report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The Committee is tasked with assessing from a financial point of view how well legislation has been implemented and does not look at the merits of the legislation.
The report “Implementing reforms to civil legal aid” found that the Ministry had certainly made cash savings from its reforms but said there was no evidence that other policy objectives, such as cutting the workload of the courts and targeting legal aid to the most vulnerable, had been met.
The PAC suggested the Ministry had not gathered evidence about the possible impact of its reforms and ignored the advice it was given about the possible impacts during the consultation period.
The Ministry had, for example, been warned that some victims of domestic violence would find it virtually impossible to provide the evidence needed to support a legal aid application under the new regime because their cases had dragged on for so long. These fears have been borne out.
The report pointed out that the Ministry had predicted a 74 per cent increase in the use of mediation to solve disputes. In reality mediation referrals fell by 38 per cent after the reforms – because the Ministry had failed to take account of the fact that it was legal aid solicitors who usually referred couples to mediation.
The report added, although mediation assessment meetings became compulsory from last April, by then many mediation centres had gone out of business – because of the legal aid reforms.
The Ministry was also criticised for failing to know whether those who were supposedly eligible for legal aid were managing to obtain it. The Ministry simply counts how many contracts it has given out to legal aid practitioners without monitoring how much work they are actually doing or investigating whether applications are being handled properly.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the PAC said it was “deeply disturbing” that the Ministry is concerned only with slashing costs and not with meeting policy requirements to ensure the poor and vulnerable have access to justice.