Back in 2011, the Government drastically reduced legal aid under the LASPO Act to try and save £350 million by taking a whole range of issues eligible for legal advice and representation out of scope.
For housing, this took an estimated 38,000 cases outside of legal help (advice) – no less than 36% of all cases eligible for housing legal help – not to mention reducing legal representation by 22%. This now means that unless you are actually homeless, or in immediate danger of homelessness, it is incredibly difficult to get specialist housing advice. Some will even have to represent themselves in complex court proceedings.
The Government justified cuts by arguing that savings had to be made; issues were of lower importance; help and advice were available from a number of other sources; and that legal aid would be targeted at those most in need. The idea was simple; cuts today, savings tomorrow.
However, the Justice Select Committee were not convinced at the time, especially not by the costs argument: “We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse.”
Thanks to a new report, we can now see why.
The National Audit Office’s report, launched last week, into the impact of the reforms, casts doubt on the real savings made to Government. For example, upfront costs on legal aid have been reduced but cases where both parties represent themselves has increased by 30%, taking more time and at greater expense to the courts. 
There are also hidden costs – something the not-for-profit sector raised at the time. The report explicitly states that the removal of advice, which can identify problems early and therefore prevent things like homelessness, may be driving up costs to the wider public sector. After all, it is far more costly to house a homeless family at crisis point than to give them pre-emptive housing advice.
Before the Act, hidden costs were flagged to the Government estimating that for every £1 spent on housing advice, the taxpayer saved £2.34, which increased to £2.84 for debt advice, and a whopping £8.80 in benefits advice. But the Government has not monitored these hidden costs to the taxpayer and the NAO quite rightly suggests it therefore “risks overstating the impacts of the reforms”.
What help and support has remained was to be “targeted” at those most in need. However, Government “does not know whether all those who are eligible for legal aid are able to access it”, according to the NAO.
It also isn’t monitoring the impact of reduced fees on the amount of advice services available; there is growing concern that the reforms have led to advice deserts. For example, no face-to-face legal aid work was started in 14 local authorities last year. On top of this, the Government’s fail-safe, Exceptional Case Funding, “sets too high a threshold” and “produces unfairness” according to the High Court.
The National Audit Office’s report is one of the few insights into the impact of the reforms we have, and it has sadly confirmed what most of us suspected.
There are likely to be hidden financial costs for the Government from people representing themselves in court and unable to get early advice; hidden human costs with vulnerable people go without access to justice, exacerbating their difficulties and causing unnecessary suffering; furthermore, remaining help is not readily available or actually reaching those in most need.
This report should be a wakeup call for the Government. We need to see measures put in place to assess unforeseen costs to the wider sector; to make sure those who are in desperate need get the help that is still available; and for the monitoring of wider service provision to prevent advice deserts.
It is a damning indictment that the true cost of the reforms is neither known, nor being sought. Yes, upfront savings have been made, but cutting legal aid for the most vulnerable in society was never a laudable goal and, without knowing the overall impacts, claiming to have saved the tax payer money is about as good as promising jam tomorrow.