Monday, 22 November 2010

Civil law to suffer bulk of proposed legal aid cuts

The green paper on legal aid published last week outlines proposals on reductions in fees and in the scope of legal aid in order to make savings of around £350m. The bulk of the cuts, £279m, will fall on civil legal aid.

A telephone advice line is proposed to replace much of the service people currently get from civil legal aid providers. LAG supports the use of telephone services as they can be useful in dealing with many problems and in signposting people to face-to-face advice if they need it. Such services, though, cannot replace legal aid as the results of our recent opinion poll survey indicate that the poorest people are also least likely to use telephone and internet services. These people are therefore the most reliant on local face-to-face legal advice services.

If these proposed cuts are implemented, just under 550,000 less people will receive help with civil legal problems. The civil legal aid system helped just over 1 million people last year and so this cut represents a 50 per cent cut in civil legal aid services to the public. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is aiming to implement these cuts from October 2012. LAG understands that the proposed changes to legal aid will be included in legislation and that the first reading of an Act of Parliament to put this in place has been scheduled for spring 2011.

The cuts include taking out of the scope of the legal aid scheme welfare benefits, debt, employment, education and clinical negligence cases. It is proposed that housing law cases are cut back to include only homelessness and disrepair (non-damages). Divorce and private law children cases will be cut from scope saving £178m and the total saving from cutting non-family civil legal aid is around £100m. Around £900 million per year is currently spent on civil legal aid and so this represents just under a third of the budget.

The cuts fall disproportionately on the services which help people with the everyday problems of life such as debt and housing. Sixty-eight per cent of the civil legal help scheme which gives initial help and advice on legal problems is to be cut. Such deep cuts have not been proposed for any other public services.

The bulk of the cuts in non-family civil legal help will fall on the not for profit (NFP) sector. We estimate that out of a total cut of £64m in legal help, over £50m will be cut from local NFP providers such as Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres. These organisations are already experiencing deep cuts from other branches of government. For example, £46m is due to be cut from the Financial Inclusion Fund next March and individual local councils, which fund 50-70 per cent of the costs of running these organisations in total, are also cutting back. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council recently cut £180,000 from its grant to the Law Centre in the borough.

In addition to the cuts in scope, the government intends to introduce a ten per cent reduction in fees in both criminal and civil cases. It has also announced its intention to introduce a competitive process for the allocation of legal aid work. A further consultation paper on introducing this for criminal work will be published next year. According to the green paper, a pilot of a competitive bid round for criminal legal aid work could commence in April 2012 and the government’s intention is to introduce a similar process for civil contracts sometime after 2013.

The MoJ has published a set of impact assessments on the proposals for legal aid. The paper on the impact of the scope changes shows that there would be a reduction in legal help cases of 502,000. The equalities impact assessment acknowledges the difficulties in breaking down the available data into gender, race and disability categories.

A green paper on Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on reform of the rules for funding civil litigation was published at the same time as the green paper on legal aid. Success fees and after the event insurance costs would no longer be recoverable from the losers. To compensate claimants, a ten per cent uplift in damages awards is proposed. LAG’s annual lecture next week is to be given by Lord Justice Jackson (see our website for full details).

The green papers are available to downoad at the MoJ website. Responses to the consultations have to be returned to the MoJ by noon on 14 February 2011. LAG is urging everyone with an interest in legal aid and access to justice to submit a response to the consultations.

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