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.