Civil legal aid

Civil legal aid: a review of its sustainability and the challenges to its viability

Legal aid is critical for many people in England and Wales to access the legal advice they need in important areas such as housing, immigration and family matters.

We’ve undertaken a review of the civil legal aid system, to:

  • look at how sustainable it is in the long term
  • recap how we got here – by highlighting changes to legal aid institutions, recipients and providers
  • recommend eight steps for the government to focus on in a formal legal aid review

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Challenges to sustainability – our research

For our civil legal aid system to be sustainable, it should be available to the same or greater proportions of people in the long term.

Who is eligible for civil legal aid depends on:

  • a range of socio-economic factors
  • government policy

Our research focuses on four key areas that impact how many people can get help paying for legal advice:

  • administration and governance of the legal aid system – the complexity of contracts and processes that add cost and inefficiencies
  • fees paid to providers – how these have changed over time, the impact and whether this is justifiable
  • practice-area specific issues for housing, family law, immigration, education – strong demand and declining supply
  • not-for-profit organisations – how their role has shrunk with cuts to legal aid provision

For solicitor firms and not-for-profit organisations to keep providing legal aid, they need to be able to make a reasonable profit to re-invest to improve efficiency and efficacy, while offering competitive salaries.

Our research highlights the decline in the number of civil legal aid providers since legal aid reforms were introduced in 2010.

As the number of civil legal aid providers decreases, so does the amount of matters started where people who cannot afford a solicitor are able to get free legal advice.

In September 2021, we published five maps showing the shortage of providers across the country for:

Timeline of civil legal aid

Recommendations

The Law Society first called for an independent review into the sustainability of the civil legal aid system in 2017.

We’ve made eight recommendations to help the government structure a formal review, to improve the system for both citizens and legal aid providers.

  1. Review the process via which solicitor firms gain entry to the civil legal aid market, alongside the fees paid for various types of work
  2. Map out the complex system of contracts and how this can be a barrier to entry for providers seeking to offer different types of legal aid
  3. Produce and maintain an evidence base to show the scale of legal needs of those eligible for civil legal aid
  4. The Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to work with other government departments to understand the full impact on public sector costs associated with changes to the civil legal aid system (this should include regular cost benefit analysis)
  5. Simplify the audit process for legal aid providers
  6. Publish key performance metrics for the online system on the LAA website
  7. Review and simplify fee structures so they reflect the cost base and risk profile faced by providers, including a system to uprate fees by inflation
  8. Collect data on litigants in person (LiPs) to enable separate analysis of cases with active LiPs

A comprehensive list of references is provided at the end of the report.