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UK Government criticised over legal aid

Posted by: Laurence Simons 04/12/14
Government cuts to legal aid have not been fully thought through, according to the National Audit Office.The government's cuts to the legal aid budget have been criticised by the National Audit Office (NAO), which claims ministers did not think through the consequences of the policies.

Head of the NAO Anya Morse commented: "The Ministry of Justice is on track to make significant and quick reductions in its spending on civil legal aid.

"However, it has been slower to think through how and why people access civil legal aid; the scale of the additional costs to the ministry likely to be generated by people choosing to represent themselves; and the impact on the ability and willingness of providers to provide legal services for the fees paid."

She said that until these facts were established, it could not be certain that the ministry had delivered better value for taxpayers.

For legal practices serving clients who depend on legal aid, the issue has been one of deep concern, with some struggling to fund their cases properly.
Having initially trimmed its legal aid budget by ten per cent, the government passed the The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which narrowed down the list of issues for which people could claim legal aid. This removed the right to claim state help for private family law cases, for example.

Many in the legal sector are concerned, not least because it prevents them doing the job they signed up for of helping people who need representation in an often complex process.

They may feel emboldened by criticisms that indicate policies designed to save cash are actually costing it. An example cited by the NAO is that of family court cases in which neither side has any legal representation. These have jumped by 30 per cent since this area of law ceased to be eligible for legal aid and is estimated to be liable to cost the HM Courts & Tribunals Service an extra £3 million a year, of which £400,000 will be a direct cost of the Ministry of Justice.

According to the NAO, there may be other concerns too, with public sector claimants unable to pursue claims potentially suffering worse health as a result, adding a greater burden on the state via the extra health service treatment they need.