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Research reveals that reforms to legal aid will not generate substantial savings

In January, the House of Lords resumed their debate over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

The first issue for consideration was an amendment, moved by Lord Bach, calling on the government to properly assess the impact of the legal aid cuts in the bill.

Although the amendment was later withdrawn, the support it gathered was heartening.

Fuelling the resistance to the government proposals was a newly published, independent report called Unintended Consequences: The Cost of the Government's Legal Aid Reforms, formulated by Dr Graham Cookson of King's College London.

Wrestling with issues largely ignored by the government to date, the report does much to undermine the supposed logic behind the cuts and exposes the cost to the public purse.

Focusing primarily on the economic as opposed to human ramifications of the cuts, Cookson's report establishes that almost 60% of forecasted savings will be wiped out by additional costs of at least £139 million to other government departments. Worryingly, this figure may only scratch the surface, with the author adding that “numerous costs could not be estimated...this is therefore likely to be a substantial underestimate of the true costs.”

Cookson's findings come as no surprise. Evidence to this effect has been in circulation for some time, as highlighted in a previous False Economy post: Legal aid cuts aren't just unfair. They will cost more than they save. The title says it all. Yet the government has persisted in its decision to turn a blind eye to the repercussions its proposals will inflict on the UK taxpayer.

Cookson's report serves as a grim reality check, countering the ill thought out plans to slash the scope of legal aid in three key areas of law – Family, Social Welfare and Clinical Negligence (together representing 85% of the total savings predicted by the government).

Those savings, according to Cookson, will be achieved at the expense of the courts and mediation services, not to mention numerous other government departments and the NHS. Individuals deprived of legal advice and who suffer consequential stress may need health and social services, while the increase in cost of Litigants in Person has been estimated by The Council of Her Majesty's Circuit Court Judges as “being between 30-50 per cent, depending upon the type of hearing.”

Each Litigant in Person, the report assesses, is expected to produce a single knock-on cost of £273.50. The unintended consequences following a rise in Litigants in Person include a greater burden on HMCTs, and increased length in hearings where either or both parties are unfamiliar with court procedure. Public response to the 2009 Civil and Social Justice Survey is a key instrument utilised by the author to establish the numbers of individuals who will seek alternative advice, represent themselves or simply resign their case to failure; foregoing access to justice completely.

Additional costs generated by a higher demand for mediation services can be quantified by existing data, and Dr. Cookson's report urges the government to use this approach to “estimate these impacts fully before implementing any reforms.”

The reasoning on which Cookson's arguments are built is perfectly clear. Early access to legal advice equals a reduced probability that the problem will spiral and reproduce, which in turn relieves the pressure on the taxpayer's wallet. The Ministry of Justice's Impact Assessment itself describes the purpose of the bill as, in part, to “make significant savings in the cost of the scheme.” Yet the generation of substantial knock-on costs dictates otherwise; not only will ordinary citizens be denied access to justice, but the proposals are unlikely to make any real contribution towards tackling the deficit. And ultimately, it is the taxpayer who will bear the brunt of those unintended costs.

Many peers agree. Lord Pannick, speaking at the House of Lords debate in support of Amendment 6, voiced concerns at the government's failure to thoroughly explore the impact of the bill before bringing the legislation before parliament.

“Since the work was not carried out before the bill was presented,” he says, “surely it is vital than an independent assessment is carried out before it is implemented and brought into effect.”

His words ring true in the ears of many. Whether the government will choose to re-evaluate its decision, however, remains to be seen.

Lara McCaffrey is from Young Legal Aid Lawyers.

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