Impact of changes to civil legal aid under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 - Justice Contents

1  Introduction


1. In 2010 the incoming Government developed plans to cut public spending significantly. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was required to find budget cuts of around £2billion from an overall budget of £9.8billion. Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was intended substantially to reduce the civil legal aid budget by removing whole areas of law from scope and changing the financial eligibility criteria. Schedule 1 contained the exceptions to the removal from scope. The LASPO scheme was introduced alongside other policy changes including a reduction in the fees paid to providers.[1] LASPO also made provision for the abolition of the Legal Services Commission, the arms-length body responsible for deciding legal aid applications, after its accounts were again qualified. The Legal Aid Agency, an executive agency of the MoJ, was created to carry out the former functions of the Commission.


2. In the final Equality Impact Assessment accompanying the Bill the MoJ set out that its objectives for the proposed legislation were to:

·  discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense;

·  target legal aid to those who need it most;

·  make significant savings in the cost of the scheme; and

·  deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer.[2]

3. In its submission to this inquiry the Ministry of Justice said that its decisions on changes to scope were guided by four factors which aimed to ensure that public funding remained available for those cases that most merited it. These factors were:

i.  the importance of the issue: cases involving the individual's life, liberty, physical safety and homelessness were considered to be a high priority, as were cases where the individual faces intervention from the state, or seeks to hold the state to account;

ii.  the litigant's ability to present their own case: considerations included the type of forum in which the proceedings are held, whether they are inquisitorial or adversarial, whether litigants bringing proceedings were likely to be from a predominantly physically or emotionally vulnerable group (for example, as a result of their age, disability or the traumatising circumstances in which the proceedings are being brought);

iii.  the availability of alternative sources of funding: where litigants are able to fund their case in other ways, for example through a Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA), legal insurance, or as a member of a trade union;

iv.  the availability of other routes to resolution: in determining the priority for certain types of case, we considered whether people might be able to access other sources of advice to help resolve their problems, avoiding the need for court proceedings. Examples include, advice on welfare benefits, (housing and other benefits), or the availability of an ombudsman scheme, or complaints procedure.


4. The changes contained in Part 1 of LASPO came into effect on 1 April 2013. We acknowledge that it is early to be assessing the impact of the reforms. The importance of legal aid for access to justice, however, requires that changes to public funding for legal advice must be closely monitored. The common law right to access a court is a cornerstone of our democracy. In his book, The Rule of Law, the late Lord Bingham said that one of the ingredients of the rule of law itself was that "means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide disputes which the parties are unable themselves to resolve" and "denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law."[3] We agree. We have therefore undertaken this inquiry to examine the success of the legal aid reforms in protecting access to justice while addressing issues of cost, and to make recommendations where we believe access to justice has been compromised.

5. Our terms of reference for this inquiry were:

    1)  What have been the overall effects of the LASPO changes on access to justice? Are there any particular areas of law or categories of potential litigants which have seen particularly pronounced effects?

    2)  What are the identifiable trends in overall numbers of legally-aided civil law cases being brought since April 2013 in comparison with previous periods, and what are the reasons for those trends?

    3)  Have the LASPO changes led to the predicted reductions in the legal aid budget? Has any evidence come to light of cost-shifting or cost escalation as a result of the changes?

    4)  What effects have the LASPO changes had on (a) legal practitioners and (b) not-for-profit providers of legal advice and assistance?

    5)  What effects have the LASPO changes had on the number of cases involving litigants-in-person, and therefore on the operation of the courts? What steps have been taken by the judiciary, the legal profession, courts administration and others to mitigate any adverse effects and how effective have those steps been?

    6)  What effects have the LASPO changes had on the take-up of mediation services and other alternative dispute resolution services, and what are the reasons for those effects?

    7)  What is your view on the quality and usefulness of the available information and advice from all sources to potential litigants on civil legal aid? Do you have any comments on the operation of the mandatory telephone gateway service for people accessing advice on certain matters?

    8)  To what extent are victims of domestic violence able to satisfy the eligibility and evidential requirements for a successful legal aid application?

    9)  Is the exceptional cases funding operating effectively?

6. The Committee has received written and oral evidence from a wide range of individuals and organisations and we are very grateful to all of them for providing that evidence and contributing to this inquiry.

1   Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, NAO, HC 784, Session 2014-15, November 2014 Back

2   Equality Impact Assessment, Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill para. 15 Back

3   The Rule of Law, Allen Lane, London, 2010, page 88 Back

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Prepared 12 March 2015