National Audit Office report lays bare the dire state of legal aid

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has today laid bare the lack of sustainability in the legal aid market and the lack of access to justice for those who need it in England and Wales.

Key findings from the report include:

  • In real terms, spending on legal aid fell by £728m (from £2,584 million to £1,856 million, a 28% reduction) between 2012-13 and 2022‑23
  • The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) lacks understanding of the demand for legal aid and the capacity of existing providers. It cannot ensure advice is available to those entitled to it
  • Civil legal aid fees are half what they were 28 years ago in real terms

Our vice president Richard Atkinson said: “This report comes at a timely moment for the future of civil and criminal legal aid.

“Both systems are on their knees, with evidence showing that it is becoming increasingly difficult for legal aid providers to sustain a business.

“It is a decade since the UK government implemented the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which cut large areas from civil legal aid overnight.

“The Law Society’s research shows the result of this legislation is large legal aid deserts. Millions of people now live in areas where they can no longer access the help and advice that Parliament has said they are entitled to.

“The people who are affected most by this are families facing eviction, victims of abuse seeking the protection they need or a vulnerable person denied access to the care they’re entitled to.”

On access to justice, Richard Atkinson said: “The NAO report states that swift access to justice is one of the MoJ’s primary objectives. However, theoretical eligibility for legal aid is not enough to achieve this objective if there are an insufficient number of providers willing or able to provide it.

“The MoJ must ensure that access to legal aid – which is itself a core element of access to justice – is supported by a sustainable and resilient legal aid market.”

On the removal of early advice, Richard Atkinson said: “We have long spoken about the detriment of the removal of early legal advice from family cases and now its impact is laid bare.

“According to the NAO, removing early legal advice has impacted on efficiencies in the wider justice system. There has been an increase in people representing themselves in court, while the MoJ’s failure to divert people to mediation has undermined its objective of reducing unnecessary litigation.

“We are pleased the government decided not to go ahead with mandatory mediation for separating couples and is forging ahead with its early legal advice pilot, but the family court system continues to face an uphill battle, with backlogs and delays still prevalent.”

On criminal legal aid, Richard Atkinson said: “Our recent judicial review victory demonstrated the plight of solicitors working in criminal legal aid.

“The judges highlighted the ‘compelling, body of evidence’ that demonstrated the ‘system is slowly coming apart at the seams.’

“We are already seeing that 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 unless the lord chancellor takes this moment to put forward investment.”

Richard Atkinson concluded: “This landmark report shines a light on the stringent and successive government cuts to legal aid alongside stagnant fees paid for expert advice provided by the remaining charities and small firms.

“Too frequently it is said that justice is not a priority for this government, but we would hope recent events will call for reflection on how it supports our courts systems.

“The public do care about justice and are vocal about when it is lacking.

“Our justice system can no longer be ignored and we urge the government to properly invest in our justice system so the public can have confidence in it.”

Notes to editors

Read the NAO’s report – Government’s management of legal aid.

The judicial review hearing took place from 12 to 14 December 2023. The judgment was handed down on 31 January. Read the judgment.

Find out about our legal aid deserts research.

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Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | 020 8049 3928 | Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100

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