We welcome today’s report from the National Audit Office and its thorough examination of recent changes to civil legal aid. The worrying findings reinforce concerns that we have been voicing ever since the LASPO measures were proposed:
Cuts, not reforms: It is alarming to find out how little insight supported such sweeping measures as in the LASPO Act. It turns out that the Ministry of Justice is “only now taking steps to understand how and why people access civil legal aid” (p. 8).
Cuts, not savings: Significant cuts were made to the cost of civil legal aid, but we now know that some costs were shifted elsewhere, for example to courts, because more people appear without legal advice or representation (pp. 13-19).
Cuts, not sustainability: The sweeping cuts have put legal aid providers like Law Centres under financial strain (p. 33). Law Centres and other charities are struggling to cope with increased demand for our services, caused in part by the cuts (p.25).
Cuts, not justice: In the first year after LASPO cuts, no new legal aid work was undertaken in 14 local authorities and among 12% of providers (pp. 34-35). If people go without even though help is available, the current system of provision is failing.
We must act fast to turn this situation around and restore effective access to justice for the most disadvantaged people, for whom legal aid was always intended.
Rather than waiting for problems to escalate before granting legal aid, remaining resources would be better targeted at prevention and early action. They should enable joined-up legal advice so people can resolve problems when they first arise, preferably avoiding courts altogether, and get on with their lives.
We hope that the Ministry of Justice seeks to learn from this report, and we look forward to working with it in the interest of improving access to justice.