MoJ underspend adds to woes caused by LASPO cuts
Analysis of figures from the Ministry of Justice shows that the decline in the number of civil legal aid cases was well underway even before the LASPO scope changes. The impact of the act’s dramatic reductions in scope has been exacerbated by a large underspend by the ministry on publicly funded legal advice.
Prior to the implementation of the LASPO scope changes, the Legal Aid Agency reported that it had funded a total of 925,200 acts of assistance in civil cases, but according to the legal aid statistics, this dropped by nearly half to 441,500 in 2013–14. However, the numbers were falling even before LASPO took effect. There was a significant decline in the number of new acts of assistance over the last parliament against the final full year of the previous government of just under one million (1,431,200 in 2009–101LSC Annual Report and Accounts 2009–10, p5.
to 441,500 in 2013–14). LAG believes that these figures illustrate that under the coalition government there was a decisive shift away from providing early advice for members of the public with a civil legal problems.
LAG clashed with officials at the MoJ over our estimate in July 2014 that the LAA was underspending its budget by over £100m. The MoJ argued that our figures were incorrect and could be explained by differences in accounting.2www.legalactiongroupnews.org.uk/moj-deny-underspend/
In November 2013, Sadiq Khan, then shadow justice secretary, argued that the MoJ had underspent the legal aid budget by £56.4m in 2012–13 – £28.9m in criminal legal aid; £27.5m in civil. The MoJ did not challenge this figure, but blamed reduced demand for criminal legal aid among other reasons for the reduction in spending and the civil fund underspend was accounted for by ‘changes in provider behaviour and the introduction of remuneration cuts’.
According to the National Audit Office in a report published in November 2014, the MoJ had exceeded its spending reductions for civil legal aid by £32m due to the LAA funding fewer cases than it anticipated.
While the amount might be in dispute, it seems irrefutable that there is a considerable underspend in the legal aid budget, which is in addition to the planned cuts. LAG believes that fee cuts and other changes to the scheme have combined with a public perception that civil legal especially is no longer available. This has had a chilling effect on the demand for services.
■ This is an edited extract from the latest edition of LAG’s Legal Aid Handbook, which is published this month.