Civil and criminal legal aid in dire straits

We have warned that civil and criminal legal aid face significant challenges to their long-term sustainability, as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) holds an oral evidence session today.

In response to the PAC’s inquiry on value for money from legal aid*, we recommend:

The UK government immediately invest £11.3m in civil legal aid to increase fees for early legal advice, while the Civil Legal Aid Review is ongoing.

The government increase criminal legal aid rates by 15%, as recommended by the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review (CLAIR).

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) should work with the police and judiciary to collect accurate data and representation to build a clearer picture of who is and isn’t accessing criminal legal aid.

Our president Nick Emmerson said: “Our civil and criminal legal aid systems are in acute crisis. Our legal aid desert maps and duty solicitor heatmaps** show large areas of the country have no access to face-to face civil legal aid services and police station duty solicitor schemes are in peril.

“The parallels across both systems are clear; decades of underinvestment and poor rates of pay have created a situation where providers are exiting the market and recruitment and retention are at an all-time low. The result will be that neither are fulfilling their objective of delivering access to justice.

“The government needs to learn the lesson from CLAIR by following the evidence it has collected in its Civil Legal Aid Review and taking urgent action to improve the sustainability of the market as soon as its report is published.

"This must include significant investment to ensure that the provision is there to allow people to access justice when they need it.”

On civil legal aid, Nick Emmerson said: “Given the extensive pressure on the sector, the government should immediately invest £11.3m in civil legal aid to increase fees for early legal advice. Doing this now would help keep the sector afloat while the review takes place.

“Without early legal advice, more people and families could be made homeless, fall further into debt or be left without the welfare benefits they desperately need.”

On criminal legal aid, Nick Emmerson said: “1,400 duty solicitors have left the profession since 2017 because the work is not financially viable.

“There simply aren’t enough solicitors to represent suspects at police stations and magistrates’ courts day and night across the country. This situation will only get worse with potentially dangerous consequences for society.

“’The system is ‘slowly coming apart at the seams,’ the High Court said in our successful Judicial Review of the government’s response to CLAIR.***

“The MoJ should now provide criminal legal aid the funding it needs and start by increasing criminal legal aid rates by 15% in real terms.”

On data collection, Nick Emmerson concluded: “The MoJ and Legal Aid Agency have a poor track record of collecting data, meaning there is a limited understanding of whether those eligible for legal aid can access it.

“A lack of data and curiosity about the challenges facing the sector has meant that when cuts have been made – such as the removal of legal aid for early advice or cuts to legal aid rates – it is impossible to understand their impact until years later.”

Notes to editors

* Read about the Public Accounts Committee inquiry on Value for Money from Legal Aid

** Find out about our civil legal aid desert maps and our duty solicitor heatmaps

*** Read the High Court’s judgment in full

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