Background to the report
Legal aid is government funding for legal services for people who meet certain eligibility criteria. In England and Wales, legal aid funding is administered by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), an agency of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Legal aid includes support for criminal and civil legal matters provided to individuals by private legal firms and not-for-profit organisations (providers). MoJ introduced reforms to legal aid in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), implemented in April 2013.Jump to downloads
Through the reforms, MoJ aimed to:
- discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense
- target legal aid to those who need it most
- make significant savings to the cost of the scheme
- deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer
The reforms significantly curtailed the types of cases for which people could claim legal aid and made some adjustments to financial eligibility criteria.
Scope of the report
We last reported on civil legal aid in 2014. We found that while the reforms had been successful in reducing legal aid expenditure, the wider impacts of the changes were poorly understood by MoJ. We have not reported on criminal legal aid since LASPO was implemented.
In recent years, MoJ has commissioned several reviews of legal aid, following stakeholder concerns about access to justice and the sustainability of both the criminal and civil legal aid sectors. Increases in the number of criminal cases and impacts of wider government policy such as the Illegal Migration Act 2023 are expected to further increase pressures on legal aid and the justice system. The focus of this report is to evaluate the processes and information MoJ and LAA have at their disposal to manage the overall legal aid system and to ensure value for money, now and in the long term. We have not examined LAA’s operational efficiency, nor have we sought to examine each area of criminal or civil legal aid in depth. This report covers:
- MoJ’s progress in understanding the full costs and savings from the LASPO reforms
- how MoJ and LAA are ensuring that legal aid provides the level of access to justice that the reforms intended
- how effectively MoJ and LAA understand and manage legal aid markets to ensure sustainability
We conclude on whether MoJ and LAA can demonstrate that they are delivering value for money from legal aid.
MoJ has succeeded in its objective of significantly reducing spending on legal aid, which has fallen by more than a quarter in the last decade in real terms. Since we last reported, MoJ has done some work to better understand the impact of its reforms and is aware of several areas where changes may have shifted costs elsewhere within government. But it still lacks an understanding of the scale of these costs and so cannot demonstrate how much its reforms represent a spending reduction for the public purse overall.
Meanwhile, stakeholders have continued to raise concerns about the reforms’ detrimental impact on the efficiency of the wider justice system, including the removal of early advice, and the increase in people representing themselves in courts. The increase in self-representation in family courts is largely due to MoJ’s failure to divert people to mediation as planned, which has undermined its objective of reducing unnecessary litigation. MoJ must now build its evidence base on the costs and benefits of providing legal aid at different stages to ensure that it is achieving value for money from its choices.
MoJ has set providing swift access to justice as one of its primary objectives. Theoretical eligibility for legal aid is not enough to achieve this objective if there are an insufficient number of providers willing or able to provide it. MoJ must ensure that access to legal aid, a core element of access to justice, is supported by a sustainable and resilient legal aid market, where capacity meets demand.
It is concerning that MoJ continues to lack an understanding of whether those eligible for legal aid can access it, particularly given available data, which suggest that access to legal aid may be worsening. Also concerning is its reactive approach to market sustainability issues. MoJ must take a more proactive approach and routinely seek early identification of emerging market sustainability issues, to ensure legal aid is available to all those who are eligible. Until then, it cannot demonstrate that it is meeting its core objectives and so securing value for money.
- Report - Government's management of legal aid (.pdf — 2 MB)
- Summary - Government's management of legal aid (.pdf — 127 KB)
- ePub - Government's management of legal aid (.epub — 2 MB)
- ISBN: 978-1-78604-533-1 [Buy a hard copy of this report]
- HC: 514, 2023-24
View press release (9 Feb 2024)