On 20 November 2014, the National Audit Office – the independent Parliamentary body responsible for scrutinising the way in which the government spends public money – published a report on the implementation of the post-2010 civil legal aid reforms. Its central conclusion is an unsurprising one: while spending on civil legal aid has been reduced significantly, the Ministry of Justice failed properly to consider the wider impact of the reforms before implementing them.
The report examines the reforms by reference to their four stated objectives:
(1) To make significant savings in the cost of civil legal aid
While the reforms are likely to significantly reduce civil legal aid spending, they also have the potential to generate additional costs to both the Ministry of Justice and other public bodies. These wider costs were not anticipated.
(2) To discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense
While the Legal Aid Agency is funding significantly fewer cases, demand for the services of third-sector providers has mushroomed: there has been a 62% increase in people seeking advice online from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and a 50% increase in requests for assistance from the Bar Pro Bono Unit.
(3) To target legal aid to those who need it most
The Ministry of Justice does not know whether or not all those eligible for legal aid are able to access it and so it cannot be confident that it is targeting funding at those most in need.
(4) To deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer
Although spending on civil legal aid is likely to be reduced significantly in the short-term, the reforms will generate extra costs for the Ministry of Justice, notably those arising from the increase in litigants in person (in which context it is worth noting that Lord Dyson MR this week told the Parliamentary justice select committee that an increase in litigants in person is likely to lead to miscarriages of justice).
The report reaches a damning conclusion:
In implementing the reforms, the Ministry did not think through the impact of the changes on the wider system early enough. It is only now taking steps to understand how and why people who are eligible access civil legal aid. The Ministry needs to improve its understanding of the impact of the reforms on the ability of providers to meet demand for services. Without this, implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer that the implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.