Implementing reforms to civil legal aid - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Access to civil legal aid after the reforms

9. The Ministry stated in its 2012 impact assessment that it was working with the Agency to "ensure that they have robust mechanisms in place to identify any developing market shortfall".[19] The Agency monitors supply by the number of contracts that it awards, but as part of the reforms it removed the contractual requirement for providers to do a minimum amount of work. This means that awarding contracts does not guarantee that there will be sufficient supply of civil legal aid. There are 14 local authority areas where no face-to-face legal aid cases started in 2013-14 and in a further 39 areas there were between 1 and 49 cases. 12% of law firms that held legal aid contracts did not undertake any legal aid work in 2013-14.[20] The Ministry also spent significantly less than forecast in some areas of law, for example 86% less in debt advice.[21]

10. While some variation in the provision of legal aid might be expected, for example between more and less affluent areas, it is important that the Ministry knows how much of the variation is due to differences in demand and how much, if any, is due to lack of supply. We asked the Agency whether it was confident that all those who are eligible for civil legal aid are able to access it. The Agency told us that this "is not a knowable fact".[22] Following the session, we received evidence from a legal aid provider who specialises in mental health law. He told us that because of the way the Agency manages legal aid contracts, he had to turn away people who are eligible for legal aid.[23] We questioned the Agency about the variation in provision of civil legal aid, and it agreed that it should do further work to improve its understanding of this.[24]

11. Following the evidence session, the Ministry told us that it considers that the variation can be explained by the fact that most of the 14 areas in which no face-to-face legal aid work was done have small populations or low levels of deprivation, are situated close to other local authority areas in which large legal aid providers are located, and had low volumes of legal aid work before the reforms. However, the Ministry still does not know whether people in these areas are able to access face-to-face legal aid. The Ministry also made a commitment to complete three surveys to improve its understanding of the legal aid market and the way people access legal aid. The Ministry told us the results will be published by autumn 2015.[25]

12. We heard from the Magistrates' Association that some people have difficulties with the court forms and processes involved in family law matters. For example, the application form for a case involving contact with children is 24 pages long, and the guidance document for that form is 32 pages long. The Magistrates' Association told us that this complexity may prevent people from accessing support to maintain a relationship with their children.[26]

13. The Ministry is responsible for the operation of an exceptional case funding scheme, which is intended to provide legal aid for people whose human rights would be breached if they did not receive it. Respondents to the National Audit Office's consultation with civil legal aid providers said that the exceptional case funding scheme may be inaccessible for many people. They argued that although people are permitted to submit applications without assistance from a lawyer, the complexity of the forms meant that most individuals would not be able to complete them. In addition, lawyers who complete applications are only paid for this if the application is successful, and there is little incentive for lawyers to do this given the low rate of approvals.[27]

14. The Ministry expected to receive between 5,000 and 7,000 applications for the scheme, but received only 1,520 in the first year after the reforms and granted just 69. We asked the Ministry to explain this, and it responded that it was not possible to predict the number of applications it would receive, as the scheme was new and its use would be based on the demand from people who had been taken out of scope of legal aid.[28]

19   Ministry of Justice, Impact assessment: Legal aid reform in England and Wales, cumulative legal aid reforms, 13 July 2012, p.17 (link to .zip file) Back

20   Qq 99, 100, 133 Back

21   Q 166 Back

22   Q 111 Back

23   Letter from John O'Donnell LLB to Chair, Committee of Public Accounts Back

24   Qq 115, 125 Back

25   Letter from the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, to the Chair, Committee of Public Accounts, 12 December 2014 Back

26   Qq 7-9 Back

27   C&AG's Report, para 3.7 Back

28   Qq 141-147 Back

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Prepared 4 February 2015