If today’s report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were an Agatha Christie story, it would have been titled ‘The Case of the Missing Knowledge’. Time and again PAC and the National Audit Office (NAO) find that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) simply does not know – even now – whether eligible people can access legal aid; whether the cuts shifted costs elsewhere; or whether they represent good value for taxpayers’ money.
We know how this story ends: in 2015 our civil legal aid system is not just cheaper but worse than it was in 2012. It helps fewer people, who face practical hurdles in accessing it, and covers fewer areas of law. Actual take-up of legal aid has been inconsistent and worryingly low, and quality of legal help provided has taken a hit. What’s worse, people left without legal aid are largely left to face “the complexity of the justice system” on their own.
The PAC report makes several useful recommendations, which we strongly urge MoJ to follow.
Helping the helpers – PAC suggests that the fall in the quality of face-to-face legal aid may be related to ever-lower provider fees: a 34% real-terms decline since 2000, cut further by another 10% in the latest reforms. It recommends that MoJ face up to this reality, “identifying and addressing the reasons that providers are failing”. We propose that legal aid commissioning be revised to encourage quality and early intervention; we consider that this is best achieved by moving from piecemeal work contracts to ones focused on client needs.
Learning for improvement – PAC recommends that ‘where policy intent is clear, [MoJ] should gather the necessary evidence proactively so that decisions are taken on that basis’. One MoJ policy objective is to target civil legal aid at those who need it most. Therefore, we propose that it follow recommendations by the Low Commission to develop evidence-based local and national legal support strategies. Planning and assessment of legal aid provision, especially addressing its shortfalls, should build on this and NAO's analysis.
PAC chair, Margaret Hodge MP, has 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.” Legal aid provision should be true to this purpose and not be decided based on ‘level of spend’ alone.