National Audit Office report reveals crisis in Legal Aid
By Law News
The report exposes drastic cuts, lack of understanding, and challenges in legal aid, threatening access to justice
A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has unveiled a crisis in the legal aid system in England and Wales, shedding light on significant challenges that jeopardize access to justice for many individuals.
The report indicates a stark reduction in spending on legal aid, with a staggering £728 million decrease in real terms between 2012-13 and 2022-23, marking a 28% reduction from £2,584 million to £1,856 million. This substantial cut has raised concerns about the sustainability of the legal aid market.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) comes under scrutiny for its apparent lack of understanding of the demand for legal aid and the existing providers' capacity. The report highlights the MoJ's inability to ensure that necessary legal advice is available to those entitled to it, further exacerbating the access to justice issue.
Civil legal aid fees have experienced a drastic 50% reduction in real terms over the past 28 years, posing a significant challenge to the financial viability of legal aid providers. The impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), implemented a decade ago, continues to reverberate, creating what the report describes as legal aid deserts. Millions of people now reside in areas where access to essential legal assistance has been severely curtailed.
Richard Atkinson, Vice President of the Law Society of England and Wales, expressed deep concerns about the state of both civil and criminal legal aid systems. He emphasized the increasing difficulty for legal aid providers to sustain their businesses, pointing out that the legal aid deserts resulting from LASPO have left many without the help and advice mandated by Parliament.
The report underscores the importance of swift access to justice as a primary objective of the MoJ. However, it raises questions about the effectiveness of theoretical eligibility for legal aid when there is an insufficient number of providers capable of delivering it.
The removal of early legal advice, particularly in family cases, has proven detrimental, leading to an upsurge in individuals representing themselves in court. The failure to divert people to mediation has also undermined the objective of reducing unnecessary litigation.
In the realm of criminal legal aid, the report echoes recent judicial concerns, emphasizing the plight of solicitors working in this field. The shortage of solicitors to represent suspects at police stations and magistrates' courts is highlighted, raising potential risks for society.
In conclusion, Richard Atkinson stressed the need for immediate government intervention and investment in the justice system. The report serves as a poignant reminder of the impact of successive government cuts to legal aid alongside stagnant fees paid to providers. Urgent action is required to address these issues and restore public confidence in the justice system.