Judges criticise impact of legal aid cuts

14 May 2014

Judicial Executive Board says cuts are often leading to increased costs elsewhere in court system, with extra litigation and longer cases.

There has been a large increase in unrepresented claimants, outbreaks of courtroom violence, extra litigation and increased costs, according to senior judges who have criticised the impact of legal aid cuts in the family courts.

In a written submission to MPs, the Judicial Executive Board, which represents senior judges, implies that the Ministry of Justice's policies in reducing the legal aid bill may have been counter-productive.

The Commons justice select committee is looking into the effect of changes introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. The committee has published online the written submissions it has received.

One of the worst effects has been on security in courts, the judges say. "LiPs [litigants in person] sometimes come to court with a group of friends and/or family for support. Tensions can run high between rival camps in the waiting area. Very occasionally there are significant outbreaks of violence. The smaller courts (typically the county courts) are not equipped to deal with such incidents. There is the potential for significant harm to judges, court staff and members of the public alike.

"District judges do not, save in exceptional circumstances, sit with a clerk or usher; they are entirely alone in their chambers. Many hearings before a district judge have to be conducted in their chambers and not in an ordinary courtroom." In one incident last year at Southend county court, an estranged father attacked his wife in the middle of a hearing.

In other key findings, the judges state: "In the courts, since LASPO came into force, there has been a large increase in the number of cases where one or both parties do not have legal representation – most prominently in private law family litigation. Where legal aid has been removed and individuals have become self-represented, the adverse impact upon courts' administration and efficiency has therefore been considerable.

"The apparent saving of cost by a reduction in the legal aid budget needs to be viewed in context: often it simply leads to increased cost elsewhere in the court system as, for example, anecdotally, cases take longer.

"The judiciary's perception is that cases which may never have been brought or been compromised at an early stage are now often fully contested, requiring significantly more judicial involvement and causing consequential delays across the civil, family and tribunals justice systems."

The number of cases resolved by mediation has fallen, resulting in more cases being dealt with by courts and tribunals.

"The absence of funding for crucial experts' reports in private law family work in particular has had significant consequences," the judges say. "The judiciary's experience is that the absence of pre-proceedings advice in the tribunals' jurisdictions has resulted in an increase in unmeritorious claims and, almost certainly, some meritorious cases never being brought."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world at around £2bn every year. We have therefore had to face up to tough choices in reforming legal aid. We are closely monitoring the impact of these changes.

"Latest figures show family court performance is being maintained, with the average time taken to complete cases remaining steady since April 2013. We have listened closely to any concerns raised and committed to reviewing certain aspects of the scheme in response."