Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Who is doing legal aid? The statistical evidence

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On 15 June 2015, I wrote a short note on the then recently published Annual Report of the Legal Aid Agency. I deplored the fact that, by comparison with its predecessor – the Legal Services Commission (whose Annual Reports not only reported on how the organisation was doing but also on the work undertaken by legal aid providers, the innovations it was seeking to introduce and the concerns it felt about the overall robustness of the scheme for delivering legal aid services), the Legal Aid Agency’s report was very narrowly focussed on corporate concerns.There was no information about the services being delivered to the public.

What information is provided is now contained in quarterly statistical reports, the most recent of which was published at the end of June 2015. These relate to the period January 2015-March 2015 (inclusive)

The headline findings were:

Criminal legal aid
1.The gradual decline of recent years in crime lower workloads has continued in the context of falling overall crime rates, and the latest quarter saw a 7% fall compared to the same period in the previous year.
2. Expenditure on crime lower has declined more than workloads, down 14% compared to the same period of the previous year.. This reflects the introduction in March 2014 of a reduction of 8.75% to the fees paid for most crime lower legal aid work.
3.In crime higher, the trend in new work entering the system has dipped in the last few quarters. The number of representation orders granted in the crown court in the last quarter was down 13% compared to the same period of 2014. Part of this reduction was due to fewer cases being in the criminal justice system.
Civil legal aid
1.The implementation of the LASPO Act in April 2013 resulted in large reductions in legal help workload and expenditure but trends have since levelled out at around one-third of pre-LASPO levels. In the last quarter new matter starts were 6% lower than in the same period of 2014
2.
Workloads in civil representation fell by a smaller proportion than legal help following the implementation of LASPO, and now appear to be stabilising at around two-thirds of pre-LASPO levels. The number of certificates granted in the last quarter was down 7% compared to the same period of the previous year.
3. After sharp falls following LASPO, the number of mediation assessments in the latest quarter was 19% up compared to the same period in 2014 and the number of starts was up by 33% over the same period.
Exceptional Case Funding
1.This quarter, the proportion of applications being granted was 18%, which is 8 percentage points lower than the previous quarter, but 11 percentage points higher than the same quarter of 2014.
The downward trends revealed here are the clear consequence of the cuts that the Government has made to the scope of the legal aid scheme.
Providers of legal aid
What this quarter’s statistical report also shows are annual figures relating to the numbers of providers of legal aid services.
These show that  in the three years from April 2012 to April 2015, there has been a significant fall in the number of provider offices for both crime and civil work. The fall has been greater for civil (down 20%) than for crime (down 11%) over this period. In the last year there was a 13% fall in civil providers and 4% reduction in crime providers.
Such figures would have led the former Legal Services Commission to ask itself whether there were enough providers in the system to provide a nationally based service, and it not what might be done to arrest the decline. Such sentiments are not aired by the Legal Aid Agency.
Indeed, it is possible for the Agency to argue that as there are still good numbers of providers applying for the various tenders for work that the Agency offers, there are still providers willing to do the work and that therefore there is no problem.
It is also possible to argue that, by comparison with most other countries, per capita spending on legal aid services remains relatively generous.
What is missing from this analysis, however, is any consideration of the age profile of legal aid providers. It may plausibly be hypothesised that many legal aid providers have been doing the work for many years, remain committed to it, and will continue to do it as long as they can. But if no or only very little new blood is coming into the legal aid sector of the legal profession, then the medium to long-term future of the sector must be in some doubt. Such doubts will be reinforced by the continued cutting of the legal aid budget – which are clearly irreversible in the foreseeable future.
I agree with Ruth Wayte, who in her podcast with me (January 2015), made the point that providing legal aid services was an interesting and very worthwhile thing to do, However, if the existing model of providing legal aid services through private practice law firms is not sustainable, perhaps these trends hide the need for a rather more profound policy debate about who should provide legal aid services. Should we be thinking about the development of other provider models?
The statistical report is at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/438013/legal-aid-statistics-bulletin-jan-to-mar-2015.pdf
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Written by lwtmp

August 4, 2015 at 11:23 am

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