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Unintended consequence of legal aid reforms

21 November 2011

Legal aid was introduced in England and Wales in 1949. In 2009 this system cost £2.1bn with over £900m being spent on civil legal aid.

As part of the government-wide public expenditure cuts to reduce the UK deficit, the Ministry of Justice must save £2bn per annum from 2014-15. To help achieve this fiscal target, the department is proposing substantial reforms to the legal aid system to deliver savings of £450m per annum.

The largest saving (of £270m, net) is to be generated by removing significant categories of law from the scope of legal aid.

In order for these savings to contribute to reducing the fiscal deficit the reforms must not generate substantial knock-on or consequential costs to the public purse.

However, the government's own impact assessment indicated that the reforms could generate knock-on costs including reduced social cohesion, increased criminality, reduced business and economic efficiency, increased resource costs to other departments, and increased transfer payments from other departments.

As reported by the Justice Select Committee and acknowledged by the Ministry of Justice, the magnitude of these knock-on costs has not been estimated.

The research's aim was to identify the potential impact of the reform to legal aid scope on the public purse, focusing in particular on the areas of law expected to generate the largest savings: family law, social welfare law and clinical negligence.

To achieve this aim, data from the Civil and Social Justice Survey were combined with data from the Legal Services Commission, and publically available data to understand the potential impact of the reforms.

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