news comment: Lies, damn lies and legal aid statistics
Some sections of the media need little encouragement to pedal the government’s line that England and Wales has the most expensive legal aid system in the world. This claim was apparently bolstered by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) last month when it published its report on European judicial systems.
A story in the Daily Mail claiming that Britain spent 20 times more on legal aid than the European average, and seven times more than France and Germany, was typical of the way the CEPEJ findings were reported. What does the CEPEJ research really show? It does, indeed, indicate that the UK spends much more on legal aid than most other European countries but, as the report itself makes clear, this has to be put in the context of overall expenditure on justice systems across Europe.
England and Wales comes third behind Norway and Northern Ireland in terms of overall expenditure on legal aid per head of population. However, once expenditure in other parts of the justice system is taken into account, spending on the justice system in England and Wales is less than some comparable countries. Germany, for example, spends a whopping €9.17 billion on its justice system, compared with €5.46 billion in England and Wales, a fact the Daily Mail seems to have overlooked.
Breaking down expenditure on the justice system by head of population puts England and Wales at €96.5, behind eight other European countries. These include Germany (€114.3), Netherlands (€125.4), and, top of the table, Switzerland (€197.7).
France is some way behind England and Wales and other comparable countries at €61.2. The inquisitorial legal system there might account for some of this difference. It is also interesting to note that citizens in France are not charged court fees, while the report comments that in England and Wales ‘the civil and family courts are, in the main, self-funding’. CEPEJ concludes that there is a trend across Europe to increase fees for access to the civil courts as a means of funding justice systems under pressure due to austerity measures.
Overall, CEPEJ suggests that access to justice in Europe is improving. It acknowledges, though, the difficulties in drawing firm conclusions on comparisons in spending on legal aid due to the differences in legal systems and other factors. This is a finding which, while it does not lend itself well to generating headline stories on legal aid spending, should nevertheless not be ignored.
■ European judicial systems – edition 2014 (2012 data): efficiency and quality of justice, CEPEJ, October 2014.