Thursday, 5 July 2012

Reductions in legal aid cases

Figures released today by the Legal Services Commission show reductions in the number of cases funded by legal aid in the past year. A total of £35.3m less was spent in non-family civil cases and £30m less in criminal cases, but a big rise in child protection cases has soaked up these reductions.

In non-family civil legal aid the main contributor to the reduction in spending has been just under £20m less being spent on asylum and immigration cases. LAG is surprised that around £12m less was spent on asylum cases in the year ending 31 March 2012 as figures from the Home Office show an 11 per cent increase in asylum applications in 2011. We believe that the reduction in expenditure on such cases has been caused by clients being unable to find a lawyer willing to take on their cases.

In the last two years, two of the largest suppliers of advice in immigration and asylum cases, the charities Refugee and Migrant Justice and the Immigration Advisory Service, have folded because of financial problems. Between them these charities undertook around 35,000 cases a year, which is at least a third of the annual total of immigration and asylum cases. LAG believes that the demise of these charities is a large part of the reason for the reduction in cases and fears that clients in need of advice on immigration matters are not getting the help they need.

There are also reductions in spending on housing, welfare benefits, debt and other civil cases. Although not on the same scale as the reduction in spending on immigration advice, these reductions in advice spending, which concern areas of law in which people commonly experience problems in a recession, are again surprising. The numbers of contracts in these non-family areas of law is down by around 200 to 2,640, and so it might be that the public are experiencing greater difficulties in accessing advice.

Police station and magistrates' court cases are down by £30m in expenditure, representing around 100,000 cases. Due to the wider use of cautions, the numbers of such cases have been falling in recent years, but anecdotal evidence from both defence lawyers and the police suggests that the police are increasingly not charging suspects due to budget cuts.

Expenditure on child protection cases has risen again, this year by £65m. The continuing impact of the baby Peter case is a likely factor, but costs per case also rose by approximately £500 to £5,495. This suggests that lawyers are taking more time on these cases. Other costs, such as expert reports, have also increased. These figures indicate that the government needs to do more work on understanding the costs of protecting children, as this remains a priority for the legal aid system. LAG believes that the reduction in expenditure for the rest of the civil legal aid system demonstrates that there is a direct relationship between availability of advice and access to justice.

See the LSC statistics and the Home Office asylum statistics.