More affordable justice: legal aid means test report

We’ve commissioned Professor Donald Hirsch to follow up his 2018 research that led the government to review its criteria for who can receive legal aid.

In 2018, we commissioned research by Professor Hirsch that showed that the legal aid means test was preventing many families living in poverty from accessing justice.

The original report from Loughborough University led the government to launch its means test review.

The proposed changes aim to make an estimated 5.5 million more people eligible for legal aid.

We support the government’s more generous approach to means testing. However, the research highlights three oversights by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) that risk undermining the government’s goals.

Under the government’s current proposals:

  1. thresholds are not linked to inflation
  2. single-parent families will be disadvantaged compared to other types of households
  3. housing benefit is treated as gross income unfairly excluding some clients

Uprating with inflation

With the cost of living crisis, prices are expected to rise by a breathtaking 20% between 2019 and 2026.

The current MoJ proposals use 2019 expenditure benchmarks through to 2026. These benchmarks are already out of date, and unless the rates increase regularly in line with inflation, the planned improvements will vanish in a few years.

How much a household has to live on before contributing to legal aid

The data below shows how the amount a household has to live on before contributing to legal aid drops over time; this is compared to the minimum income standard (MIS). The MIS indicates the income needed to reach a socially acceptable standard of living.

Extra allowance for single parents

Single-parent families must budget a higher proportion of their income to pay for their children’s needs, relative to two-parent families.

The current proposals disadvantage single parents, who’ll be left with a bigger shortfall than other households.

Professor Hirsch suggests an additional allowance to lone parents, recognising the extra spending pressures they face. We would support this adjustment.

Housing benefit

The review proposes to treat housing benefit as part of gross income. This could exclude people with high housing costs.

The benefit is paid to individuals or families that do not have sufficient income to cover housing. If this amount is added to gross income it may lead to some clients being unfairly excluded.

This could particularly impact lone families and people with disabilities that may have higher housing costs, for example, to pay for an additional room for a carer.

We therefore believe that income from housing benefit and the housing element of universal credit should not be added to gross income

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