New National Audit Office report shows legal aid is “on its knees”

A new report from the National Audit Office shows the dire state of the legal aid system in England and Wales, the lack of sustainability of the current system and the barriers to justice for many who need it.
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The National Audit Office has today published its report on the government’s management of legal aid in England and Wales.

The NAO is the UK’s independent public spending watchdog.

The report comes 11 years after since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which cut large areas from legal aid.

It has also been 28 years since the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last increased legal aid fees for civil aid cases.

The report is clear: current legal aid provisions are not sustainable and there is a lack of access to justice for those who need it.

Some of the key findings are:

  • in real terms, government spending on legal aid fell by £728 million (28%) between 2012/13 and 2022/23
  • in 40% of family dispute cases between January and March 2023, neither the applicant or respondent had legal representation, a 26% increase on the same period 10 years earlier
  • there has been a 9% decrease in the proportion of people in England and Wales who are within 10 kilometres of a legal aid housing providers

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.

“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.”

Access to justice

“The NAO report states that swift access to justice is one of the MoJ’s primary objectives,” Richard added.

“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.”

LASPO also removed early legal advice for housing and family law, which have argued can cause legal problems to escalate unnecessarily.

On this, Richard 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.”

Criminal legal aid

Speaking on our recent judicial review victory, Richard said that this “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.”

Proper investment needed

Ultimately, Richard added that the government must increase funding to legal aid:

“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.”

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