A senior figure within the Ministry of Justice has admitted that the cuts to civil legal aid were brought in without any research taking place on the possible impact on the legal industry itself.
MOJ Permanent Secretary, Ursula Brennan, made the worrying, yet not surprising, admission before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday saying that the decision to slash £300m from the legal aid budget was ‘imperative’.
She told the House: “The government was explicit it needed to make these changes swiftly. It was not possible to do research about the current regime.”
“The piece of evidence that was overwhelming was the level of spending. The evidence required was that government said we wish to cut the legal aid bill.”
Brennan went on to deny that the cuts brought about by LASPO had been responsible for denying people access to justice and insisted that research had to wait until after the implementation of LASPO.
But the legal industry will certainly not see things that way and nor should the general public.
Within the Personal Injury industry alone, such cuts to costs has seen hundreds of Law firms forced to change their services or close their doors altogether, which of course has a knock-on effect on those people who have suffered an injury in an accident when it comes to claiming for the compensation they deserve.
As more and more high street law firms were forced to look elsewhere or close, it reduced the number of representative options for those seeking compensation and even left accident victims facing the prospect of having to fight for their compensation in the courts without representation.
The revelations made by the Permanent Secretary were criticised by the Committee Chair, Margaret Hodge, who also laid into Brennan personally over her role in the implementation of LASPO.
She accused the department of ‘endemic failure’ and said that Brennan had not exercised her ‘proper power’ when allowing the changed to be implemented without the necessary research on the impact of them taking place.
She said: “The thing that really distressed me is how you embarked on this with so little evidence. When you were changing the rules you had no idea what impact it would have.”
There was also criticism of the Legal Aid Agency from Margaret Hodge over the issues of fees paid to legal aid lawyers.
Questioning the Chief Executive of the LAA, Matthew Coats, she asked: “Is this the case you’re paying rock-bottom prices and getting rock bottom quality? The prices you’re paying mean quality will inevitably in many cases poor. This is this poorest people getting the poorest quality and you just sit there and say you will sign off contracts in a different way next time.”
Scott Rees and Co Partner, David Byrne, supported the stance taken by Margaret Hodge, and criticised the government for ignoring the toll that the cuts would have on the legal industry and most importantly peoples’ access to justice.
He said: “It is unbelievable that these cuts to legal aid were introduced without the right level of impact the research, especially considering the Government have always taken the stance that they will preserve access to justice no matter what reforms they introduce and put the interests of accident victims at the forefront of their decisions.”
“Clearly this has not been the case and now there are many more people up and down the country who are struggling to get the legal advice or representation they need.”
“It is also unthinkable that there was no thought about what these cuts might do to the legal industry itself and because of this lack of care or interest in the impact of the legal aid cuts, hundreds of firms have been forced to cut back on staff and in some cases have closed their doors because they were left with nothing to work for.”
“I would hope that this revelation is taken seriously and considered when any future cuts or reforms are suggested so that we can avoid such mistakes. The people responsible have proven that they can not be trusted with overseeing the future of the legal sector and should be held accountable accordingly.”
Indeed the Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, revealed that there are areas of the country where people are struggling to gain access to valuable legal advice and that since the cuts were introduced there had been a 30% rise in the number of litigants in person.