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

2  The evidence base for the civil legal aid reforms

7. We conducted a short inquiry concurrent with the Government's consultation on the proposed legal aid changes in 2011. In that report, Government's proposed reform of legal aid,[4] published in March 2011, we raised concerns in a number of areas over the Government's evidence base for the proposed changes. We said, for example:

    We are disappointed in the dearth of evidence on legal aid expenditure at case level to enable the identification of key influences on cost…

    It has been put to us that the removal from scope of many areas of social welfare law will lead to significant costs to the public purse as a result of increased burdens on, for example, health and housing services. We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse and we call on them to do so before taking a final decision on implementation.[5]

8. In November 2014 the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report Implementing reforms to civil legal aid. That report concluded that the evidence base for the legal aid reforms was poor. When asked about the report's conclusions by the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Ursula Brennan, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, candidly told that Committee "the 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." Dame Ursula admitted the primary motivation for the changes was financial: "I was simply saying in terms of the evidence, the most critical piece of evidence that was relevant to the decision that was made was the size of the spend."[6]

9. We asked the Minister whether it was true that the legal aid reforms had been carried out on the basis of limited research. His response was telling:

    we had to take very urgent action, and that we did do. In an ideal world, it would have been perfect to have a two-year research programme speaking to all the stakeholders and then come to a decision. Sadly, the economic situation that the Government inherited did not allow that luxury.[7]

10. We asked the Lord Chancellor about the NAO's criticism of the implementation of the legal aid reforms. He did not accept the criticism was valid because the savings had been achieved and described the NAO's position as "strange": "The report showed very clearly that we had met our financial objectives in taking what was a very difficult set of decisions."[8]

11. We regret the Government's failure to carry out adequate research into the legal aid system before introducing the reforms.

4   Third Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2010-11, Government's proposed reform of legal aid, HC 681-I Back

5   Ibid, Para 136 Back

6   Public Accounts Committee, Oral evidence: Implementing reforms to civil legal aid, HC 808, 4 December 2014 Back

7   Q 292  Back

8   Q 44, Follow up session on crime reduction policies and Transforming Rehabilitation, HC 848 of Session 2014-15,
2 December 2014  

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Prepared 12 March 2015