Justice secretary David Gauke MP appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee yesterday (3 April) to answer questions on the work of his department. It was his first appearance in front of the committee since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) review documents
were published and so much of the hour in which he gave evidence was devoted to legal aid and the budget pressure his department is under.
Gauke said that he was ‘sympathetic to the case for early intervention’ so that legal problems could be dealt with ‘further upstream’, but that the evidence around the value of this was ‘very anecdotal at the moment’. Committee chair, Bob Neill MP, asked him if he believed the reductions in social welfare law (SWL) brought in by LASPO had exceeded expectations? While not answering the question directly, Gauke did say that SWL was a ‘particular area of focus for us’ and that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wanted to build up the evidence base to make the decisions around the best way to assist people with these problems.
At a number of points in the discussion, members of the committee pointed out that the planned reviews and pilots announced by the MoJ would not coincide with the Treasury spending review, which is taking place over the next 12 months. In response to a specific question on the early advice pilot, it was ‘right to say in an ideal world we’d have the evidence as we went into the spending review’ but the MoJ ‘can highlight to the Treasury where the evidence is likely to take us’. In comment later in the meeting, he said the department does not want to be caught in ‘an endless cycle of going back to the Treasury’ for more cash and that any budget settlement must offer good value for taxpayers and be sustainable.
Concerns were expressed by the committee about the problems in the courts caused by litigants in person (LIPs), particularly in the family courts. The justice secretary pointed out that the MoJ had increased the funding for support services for LIPs ‘as it is right that we try to make our system as accessible as possible for people without representation’. He also argued that the MoJ’s online divorce process is ‘going very well’ and that he wants to make the system as simple as possible for users. As an aside, he said there was an ‘interesting debate to be had’ on making the family justice system ‘less adversarial’.
The reductions in the number of legal aid firms and not-for-profit (NfP) advice centres was raised by the committee. Gauke said that everyone should have access to legal advice when needed and that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) ‘keeps provision under review’. He also pointed out in the context of civil legal aid that there were more offices offering this than under the previous contract. In response to a question on the reduction in NfP advice services, he said that the £5m innovation fund offers ‘opportunities for technology solutions’, which the sector can take up.
As regards the criminal legal aid fees review, Gauke emphasised the need to consider the sustainability of the market including the recruitment, retention and diversity of the workforce.
Aside from legal aid, he also answered questions on the prisons and probation service, as well as the recruitment of judges and the state of the courts system. He stressed that he wants a criminal justice system that delivers rehabilitation effectively and a ‘prisons system which is decent, humane and safe’. Neill observed that prisons and probation could be seen as dominating the budget and work of the MoJ perhaps at the expense of access to justice. Gauke said he did not agree with this, but admitted that the MoJ’s budget had been under pressure in recent years.