The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced a review into the civil legal aid market in an effort to move to a “more effective, more efficient, and more sustainable system” – but changes likely remain years away with the report not published until 2024, leading to calls for interim measures.
The MoJ is set to commission an external economic analysis of the civil legal aid market to better understand how people access funding and support.
The review will encompass all categories of civil legal aid provision, with in-depth analysis into several areas including family, housing, and education.
As well as an assessment of how such systems work in other comparable countries, the review will also include publications of further data on how civil legal aid is accessed and delivered across England and Wales to help inform future decisions.
Through reviewing legal aid provision in comparable countries as well as in England and Wales, the “comprehensive review” will provide a “wealth of evidence on the civil legal aid systems, how services are provided, and of the issues facing the market”, according to Justice Minister Lord Bellamy, who added:
“Identifying how we can make provision work best for everyone will help ensure we are building a more efficient and effective system to deliver sustainable legal aid support well into the future.”
No report until 2024
The government said the final report is due to be published sometime in 2024, something the Law Society and Bar Council have condemned.
There is an “urgent need for immediate investment” in civil legal aid according to Lubna Shuja, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, adding:
“A well-functioning civil justice system is vital to the economic health and social wellbeing of our country. Legal aid is an essential part of this. We have a justice system that’s the envy of the world, but without investment, it is falling apart.”
If this cash investment does not come soon, Shuja said providers are facing “an existential crisis” as more and more firms close their legal aid departments:
“The last time fees were increased was in 1996, over 25 years ago. On top of this, the government imposed a further 10% fee-cut in 2011. This represents a real-terms cut of 49.4% in fees to 2022.”
Shuja’s sentiment was echoed by Nick Vinehall KC, Chair of the Bar, who said the cuts to fees have had a “profound impact on access to justice” as well as on those who undertake the work. Vinehall said this impacts the most vulnerable in society, and also affects the courts through an increase in people representing themselves. He concluded:
“Whilst it is important that the review is comprehensive, a lot of the evidence for change already exists. We are concerned that the timetable for the review is too slow given the year-on-year decline in providers.
The review is not due to report until 2024, so any changes are not likely to take place until 2025 at the earliest. That delay creates a threat in itself. Our solicitor colleagues who provide the critical first line of advice are increasingly leaving the legal aid market altogether because present levels of remuneration are simply unsustainable.
Unless interim measures are put in place to shore up existing provision there will be no system left by 2025. Urgent action is needed now to prevent the complete collapse of the system and we urge the Government to consider short-term interim measures on fees and scope.”