The timetable for the government’s major review of the civil legal aid system will not be brought forward, ministers signaled today.
The Ministry of Justice’s announcement states that the final report will be published in 2024, which suggests any measures to save the shrinking sector may not be implemented until late 2024 at the earliest – in the likely runup to the next general election.
Labor’s Andy Slaughter pressed ministers on the timetable in the Commons today. ‘The [review] is an admission that the cuts brought in by the LASPO act have left the civil courts in a dysfunctional state, with a third of providers out of business and longer and longer delays in proceedings. The timetable for review takes its implementation beyond the general election, which is another abdication of responsibility for the chaos in the courts they’ve caused. Shouldn’t they bring forward either the review or the general election?’
Justice minister Mike Freer replied: ‘In terms of reform of all parts of the justice system, it is a priority. But within the spending envelope that we’re operating in, we have to spend the money where we can get the best return for our investment. If the honorable gentleman has some serious options for how we can spend the money better, then I’m all ears.’
The Law Society and Bar Council have already voiced concern about the timetable, with Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC warning that the delay ‘creates a threat in itself’.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group urged the government to act on existing data and the recommendations of experts from across the profession to implement solutions as quickly as possible.
LAPG co-chairs Nicola Mackintosh and Jenny Beck said: ‘Civil legal aid fees have not increased in 30 years, and indeed have been cut in this time. Year on year, legal aid lawyers are expected to deliver their expert services to vulnerable clients on fees that continuously fall due to inflation. Many have simply given up. Those who remain are exhausted, cannot recruit new staff and struggle to retain their existing staff. Current providers are so committed to the access to justice that they find ways to subsidize loss-making legal aid work and they carry out work for free to provide the services their clients need.
‘The action needed to ensure that the civil legal aid scheme is effective and accessible to those who need it is clear and indisputable. There are no further efficiencies to be made to a service that has been cut to the bone over three decades.’
The review should be used to demonstrate that investment in civil legal aid reduces costs elsewhere within the justice system and public spending in other government departments, they added. ‘We know, for example, that advice under legal aid that compels a landlord to repair a run-down property is far more cost-effective than treating the health issues that arise from poor housing.’
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