The costs of legal aid cuts

There’s a very interesting study, conducted by Laura Bradley of the Strategic Society Centre, and funded by the Bar Council analysing LSRC (formerly the research arm of the LSC) data on justiciable problems with direct relevance to forthcoming legal aid cuts.  It adds to the evidence base suggesting that legal aid cuts may backfire: increasing costs on the poor and on the court and tribunal system.  Rather than try and present my own analysis, here are the reports conclusions.

If the Ministry of Justice implements its proposals, and if consequently fewer people will be able to access  professional independent legal services – either because they would no longer be eligible for legal aid, or because a service has closed as a result of lack of funding – we might expect:

  • Fewer social welfare legal issues, problems of ‘everyday life’, and especially housing problems, to end in agreement between the parties. Policies that promote Alternative Dispute Resolution or ADR (as  opposed to litigation) as a substitute for legally  aided social welfare services need to take account  the fact that the problems of poorer people are less  likely than other peoples’ to reach agreement,  regardless of where they seek assistance.
  • More people to give up trying to bring their divorce  and relationship breakdown problems to a  satisfactory conclusion. Poorer people will be  disproportionately affected, since they are more  vulnerable than other people to give up (and not  necessarily because of the cost of taking action).
  • Fewer people experiencing housing problems will experience an improvement in their health. This  does not represent so much an ‘opportunity cost’ as an actual future cost to health services, and one  which has not been acknowledged or quantified in the Ministry of Justice’s impact analysis. Since  improvements are currently reported most frequently among poorer people (who have been  shown to generally be in poorer health than other people), they would be particularly affected. A  failure to invest in independent professional legal services may have a cumulative effect on the health of people vulnerable to housing problems, and may, over time, result in cumulative healthcare costs.
  • An increase in the demand for tribunal hearings, for  a variety of inter-related reasons. The risk that  poorer people will have a reduced level of access to  justice in relation to employment problems  compared with the present will also need very  careful quantification and mitigation. This will be particularly important if demand for employment  and employment appeal tribunals increases beyond  a level that the system can cope with; since their  problems are already more likely to reach tribunal  than those of their wealthier counterparts, in such a  scenario the impact of any backlog in hearings will  affect poorer people more than others.

Of particular note is the finding that cases involving people from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to reach negotiated settlements, whether or not they are represented.  For this group, a push towards ADR looks particularly problematic.

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About Richard MOORHEAD

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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