Implementing reforms to civil legal aid - Public Accounts Committee Contents

3  Understanding the impact of the reforms

16. In the year following the reforms, there was an increase of 18,519 cases (30%) in which both parties were representing themselves (known as litigants in person or LIPs) in family courts. Within this, there were 8,110 more cases involving contact with children in which both parties were LIPs in 2013-14, an increase of 89% from the previous year. Judges have estimated that cases involving LIPs can take 50% longer and many legal professionals have said that they place additional demands upon court staff.[29] The NAO also identified an increase in the number of contested family cases reaching the courts, with the figure rising from 64% in 2012-13 to 89% in 2013-14. We heard evidence from the Magistrates' Association that magistrates feel that the significant rise in the number of LIPs in family courts has had a negative impact on the administration of justice.[30]

17. The Ministry does not understand the impact of the increase in LIPs on court resources because it does not have reliable information about key aspects of the court system, particularly hearing lengths. The data that it collects on the representation status of litigants and the type and complexity of cases is also limited. The Ministry agreed that without this information, it cannot know what impact LIPs have on court costs.[31] Research that the Ministry commissioned to examine the impact of LIPs recommended that follow up research is needed to examine the impact of legal aid reforms on the impact of LIPs on the court system.[32]

18. The Ministry told us that it does not believe that cases involving LIPs take longer than other cases, and cited its recently published 'experimental analysis', which indicates that cases involving LIPs may be shorter than cases in which both parties are represented.[33] However, the Ministry acknowledged that the data used for this analysis is drawn from estimates of hearing lengths made before the actual hearings.[34] The analysis that the Ministry referred to states that the data analysed "is not intended to provide reliable statistical data to be used for performance monitoring".[35] The Ministry did not accept the anecdotal evidence provided by the judiciary that there was a 50% increase in length of hearings where there are litigants in person.[36]

19. The Ministry reduced the fees paid to legal aid providers by 10% as a part of the reforms to reduce spending on civil legal aid, but did not assess the costs of providing legal aid or model the impact of the changes.[37] Fees paid for legal aid have not been increased for inflation since 1998-99, which equates to a real-terms reduction of 34% before the additional 10% fee reduction is taken into account. A large majority of respondents to the National Audit Office's consultation with legal aid providers said that the price paid for civil legal aid does not cover the cost of providing the service. In addition, 56% said that their ability to provide comprehensive legal advice to civil legal aid clients had become worse since the reforms were implemented.[38]

20. The Ministry conducts peer reviews of legal aid advice; most are targeted (providers are selected for review based on concerns that the Agency has about them) and some are selected at random. In 2013-14, 32% of targeted firms failed their review and 23% of firms selected at random failed. In the previous year, 28% of targeted firms failed their review and 41% of firms selected at random failed.[39] The Agency could not explain why such a high proportion of firms were failing to meet its quality thresholds or what the longer-term trends were in its quality assurance results. It was also unable to tell us whether there was any link between the reduction in fees over time and the quality of civil legal aid being provided. The Agency told us that it believes it has mechanisms in place to monitor and address poor quality and that it sometimes issues warning notices or does not renew contracts when providers fail quality assurance tests. However, it appears to have done nothing to understand the reasons why some providers are falling short of the standards expected and would not commit to a target or timeframe for improving the quality of legal aid to a more acceptable level.[40]

21. While the Ministry is on track to reduce its spending on civil legal aid significantly, it is likely that the reforms will lead to costs to the wider public sector. The Ministry acknowledged this in its 2012 impact assessment, noting that people who would have had access to civil legal aid may no longer be able to resolve their civil legal issues, and accepting that this might lead to possible knock-on costs to government services including health, welfare and housing. The Ministry did not attempt to quantify these potential costs.[41]

22. We have reported previously on the importance of understanding the full impact of cuts, and that interdependencies between departments mean that cuts in one department can lead to additional costs elsewhere.[42] We asked the Ministry why it had not done more to measure the costs of its reforms to the wider public sector. The Ministry told us that it was not possible to know what the impact of the reforms might be outside of the Ministry. We heard from the Treasury Officer of Accounts that impact assessments often do not quantify costs of policy changes to the wider public sector.[43] Following the evidence session, the Ministry told us that the failure to monetise potential knock-on costs of reforms is "representative of a common pattern seen across government".[44]

23. Evidence from other organisations indicates that more can be done to estimate the wider impacts of these reforms. For example, Citizens Advice told us that it has surveyed clients to gather evidence on the impact of their advice on their clients' financial problems and mental and physical health.[45] The Legal Action Group commissioned a survey of 1,001 GPs to gather evidence about the impact of the reforms on the health and wellbeing of patients. It found that the majority of GPs surveyed had noticed an increase in patients who would have benefited from legal advice on social welfare issues, and that 88% of GPs surveyed agreed that the denial of access to legal advice on social welfare issues can have a negative effect on health.[46]

24. These studies do not, in themselves, provide conclusive evidence on the wider impact of the reforms, but they are examples of the kind of work that can be done to develop a better understanding of the value of civil legal aid and the likely impact of removing access to it. We asked the Ministry whether they did any work with other Departments to estimate costs to their budgets, and the Ministry told us that it would not "be a practical piece of research".[47] The Ministry did not undertake any research on this subject before implementing the reforms and told us that it does not intend to do any further work to measure the impact or cost of the reforms on the wider public sector. Without this information, the Ministry is not able to know the full impact of the spending reductions from its reforms and cannot know whether or not the spending reductions to the legal aid budget outweigh additional costs to other parts of government.[48]

29   Qq 27, 66, 71; C&AG's Report, para 1.27 Back

30   Q 7 Back

31   Q 81; C&AG's Report, para 1.19 Back

32   Ministry of Justice, Litigants in person in private family law cases, 27 November 2014 Back

33   Qq 66-78 Back

34   Qq 75-76 Back

35   Ministry of Justice, Experimental statistics: analysis of estimated hearing duration in private law cases, England and Wales, 27 November 2014, p.7 Back

36   Qq 70-71 Back

37   C&AG's Report, para 3.20 Back

38   Q 189; C&AG's Report, para 3.14 Back

39   Q 178 Back

40   Qq 180-188 Back

41   Ministry of Justice, Impact assessment, p.11(link to .zip file) Back

42   Committee of Public Accounts: Cost reduction in central government: summary of progress, 80th Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1845, 27 April 2012; and Managing Budgeting in Government, 34th Report of Session 2012-13, HC 661, 8 March 2013 Back

43   Qq 194-195, 204 Back

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

45   Q 5 Back

46   Legal Action Group, Health legal advice: Findings from an opinion poll of GPs, 3 December 2014 Back

47   Q 203 Back

48   Qq 194-195 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 4 February 2015