WALES/ENGLAND – Legal aid reforms under scrutiny as peers criticise proposed cutbacks

Lords discuss legal aid reforms as new research claims cuts will incur £100m-plus knock-on costs

The Government’s proposed legal aid reforms are facing further criticism in the House of Lords this month as discussions continue over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

The Bill – which sets out the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) plans to cut £350m from the annual legal aid budget – is currently under discussion in the upper house, with peers highlighting the potentially negative impact of the reforms.

In discussions last week, Labour peer Lord Beecham commented: “It is not only legal aid and representation that will disappear under these provisions but legal advice and assistance, which often prevent cases going to court. In many cases such measures avoid what I and many observers fear will happen; namely, a significant increase in litigants in person. That is likely to lead to considerable delays – the clogging up of the courts will be inefficient and, for that matter, costly.”

Baroness Mallalieu added: “If […] the Bill remains unchanged by amendment and legal aid is withdrawn from some areas, it is almost certain that it will be shown in due course that legal aid was essential for the smooth running of our benefits systems, our legal system and our society.”

The Bill is likely to remain at committee stage until next month (9 February), with several amendments still due to be discussed by the Lords.

The news comes after the publication of a report – compiled by King’s College London and commissioned by the Law Society – which claims that the Government has failed to adequately consider knock-on costs to the public purse in its plans to save £240m yearly by slashing legal aid for civil law cases.

The report found that the withdrawal of legal aid for family law, welfare benefits and clinical negligence, which represent 85% of the total savings predicted, would lead to unbudgeted extra costs to the taxpayer of at least £139m – wiping out around half of the claimed savings.

It claims that as a result, the annual net saving to the public purse would be £100m, or 42% of the saving predicted in the Government’s impact assessment for these areas of law. The findings, which were compiled by King’s College economics professor Graham Cookson, claim that the removal of legal aid for victims of clinical negligence could cost the Department of Health almost £3 for every £1 in proposed savings.

Cookson also examines the effect of an estimated doubling in the numbers of mediation cases, with the report claiming that the knock-on costs could amount to £42m per annum. It also predicts an annual increase of £45m in litigation costs due to an expected sharp increase in litigants-in-person.

The report also claims that the increased usage of alternative advice services will cost other Government departments £53m a year.

Cookson concluded in the report: “This undermines the Government’s economic justification for the changes, especially given the numerous costs that could not be estimated in this study. Given the largely negative response to the consultation exercise, the Government should re-evaluate the justification for the legal aid scope changes.”

Law Society chief executive Des Hudson commented: “The report emphasises that the savings claimed by the MoJ if they are made at all will lead to an increase in costs for other government departments including the NHS Litigation Authority. What is needed is a cross-government impact assessment of the claimed savings and the amendment tabled in the House of Lords. Seeking such a step will, I hope, command the support 
of all peers.”

For more on legal aid, see Under pressure – are the legal aid cuts tough love or political expediency?

Legal Week

Permanent link to this article: