MPs slam civil legal aid reform impact

The Government has failed to target legal aid to those who need it most, a Justice Committee inquiry into the impact of the civil legal aid reforms has concluded.

The final report of the cross-party committee of MPs, Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, found that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had failed to achieve three out of its four stated objectives for the reforms.

Whilst the Government had achieved its aim of substantially reducing the civil legal aid budget, access to justice had been harmed, unnecessary litigation at public expense had not been discouraged, and better value for the taxpayer not shown.

Announcing the conclusions, Committee Chair, Sir Alan Beith MP, acknowledged that making £2bn of savings from a budget of £9.8bn was clearly a “challenging target”.

“But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.

“Many of the problems which we have identified could have been avoided with better research, a better evidence base to work from, and better public information about the reforms.

“It is vitally important that the MoJ works to remedy this from now on,” he warned.

The report identified a “significant underspend” in the civil legal aid budget since the reforms and “wrongful refusal of exceptional case funding applications [that] may have resulted in miscarriages of justice”.

“All agencies involved must closely examine their actions and take immediate steps to ensure the exceptional cases funding scheme is the robust safety net envisaged by Parliament,” it concluded.

Responding to the report, Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar said that the findings “came as no surprise” to any professional giving legal advice to vulnerable people; and that recent reports by the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office had come to much the same conclusions. “We need a commitment from all parties to approach justice differently,” he said.