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Civil legal aid changes since 2013: the impact on people seeking help with legal problems

Published Thursday, January 14, 2016

Changes to civil legal aid have reduced spending, but whether they have increased costs elsewhere or added to the difficulties people may face in obtaining help with legal problems remains controversial.

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Long before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’s legal aid provisions came into effect on 1 April 2013, taking many areas of law out of scope, they had attracted a great deal of controversy.

In very broad terms, the coalition Government argued repeatedly that it had to make savings from the legal aid budget in England and Wales.  Although it was focusing on those in greatest need and keeping the most pressing cases (such as those where the person faces an immediate risk of homelessness) in scope, it wished nonetheless to discourage cases from coming to court when they might better be resolved by other means, such as other forms of advice or mediation. Critics of the changes, on the other hand, argued that they would have a disproportionate effect on the poor and the vulnerable, who may have nowhere else to turn. 

Do we now spend less on legal aid?

Commentators such as the National Audit Office and Commons Public Accounts and Justice Committees agree that the changes have reduced spending on civil legal aid.

What has been the effect on people seeking help with legal problems?

The National Audit Office and Commons Public Accounts and Justice Committees have questioned whether the cuts to legal aid have increased costs elsewhere in the legal system and have drawn attention to the increased difficulties that people may face in obtaining help with legal problems.  This note therefore offers an overview of the available evidence of the impact of the Act’s legal aid provisions, particularly the impact on clients, on those unable to access legal aid and on women and families. 

Does spending on legal aid create savings elsewhere?

Whether legal aid spending in fact allows the state to save money elsewhere is also the matter of some debate.

Particular issues surrounding the availability of legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, the 2012 Act’s impact on providers of legal aid and the rise in the number of self-represented litigants (litigants in person) observed since the 2012 Act came into force are discussed in other Commons Library briefings, available on Parliament’s topic page for legal aid.

Commons Briefing papers SN06645

Author: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood

Topics: Civil law, Legal aid

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