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‘Families are paying the high price of legal aid cuts’: Nicholas Lavender QC

Bar Council responds to National Audit Office’s report on civil legal aid

responding to the National Audit Office's report on the government's reform of civil legal aid, Nicholas Lavender QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said:

"It is worrying, but sadly not surprising, to read the NAO's conclusion that "In implementing the reforms, the Ministry did not think through the impact of the changes on the wider system earlier enough" and that, without a better understanding of these matters, "implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.

"The NAO has confirmed that the cuts have gone further than intended, with the Ministry being on track to exceed spending reduction forecasts by an estimated £32million a year.  For instance, whilst the Ministry of Justice estimated that 5,000-7,000 applications a year would be made for legal aid in 'exceptional circumstances' and that the majority of applications would be granted, in reality between April 2013 and March 2014 only 1,519 such applications were made, and a mere 57 granted. Excluding inquests, where special rules apply, only 16 applications for "exceptional case funding" were granted in the 12 months after the cuts came into effect.

"Yet in the same 12 month period, the NAO estimates that over 36,000 people who would otherwise have received legal representation have been excluded from legal aid by the cuts.  Tens of thousands of these people are having to represent themselves in our courts, including mothers and fathers involved in disputes about the custody of their children.  The most worrying figure is the 89% increase in cases involving children, where it is not just one parent who is desperately attempting to represent themselves, but both parents are. Where, as so often happens, they are unable to represent themselves effectively, then the Courts do not hear both sides of the case and it is difficult for the Courts to do justice.

"The problems being felt by families and others are not only in the courts. The NAO also estimates that there has been a drop of 326,000 a year in the number of people receiving legal advice on their family law and other problems. 

"In family cases, the Government hoped that more people would take their cases to mediation.  But the opposite is happening.  The NAO report shows that, instead of increasing, the number of cases going to mediation fell by 56% in 2013-14 compared to the previous year. That is not just a blip.

"The NAO report, as well as other evidence, shows that families are paying the high price of legal aid cuts. Much of what we feared about LASPO has come to pass. Individuals dealing with life-changing legal issues are being denied fair access to justice. The NAO Report confirms that these cuts have gone too far and the Ministry of Justice needs to act to do something about it."

The NAO report is here.