Civil legal aid cuts rushed and ill-informed

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) plunged into £300m of civil legal aid cuts without considering evidence of the consequences, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has heard.

Dame Ursula Brennan, Permanent Secretary of State at the MoJ, admitted to MPs on 4 December that the Ministry had been unable to assess the impact of the cuts because of the speed with which they were required: “Government was absolutely explicit that it needed to make these changes swiftly. Therefore, it was not possible to do research about the current regime before moving to the cuts.”

“The most critical piece of evidence that was relevant to the decision that was made was the size of the spend,” Brennan said. “It was very clear that we would launch research... after the event,” she added.

Committee Chair Margaret Hodge MP rounded on the MoJ for its “endemic failure” in implementing non-evidence-based policy. “Our criticism is that the way you have set about this with so little evidence has had unintended consequences that mean that you do not meet the objectives of the policy.”

“There are plenty of areas of public and social policy which are even more complex than this where economists do make assessments. It does not mean they are right, but it means you are able to make more informed decisions,” Hodge added.

The Committee drew evidence from the National Audit Office’s report Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, which found that the MoJ did not think through early enough the impact of the changes on the wider system, and still does not know whether people who are eligible for legal aid are able to get it.

“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 NAO concluded.