The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has finally released its long-overdue report into the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The act removed access to legal advice in all benefit and most debt cases overnight, drastically reducing the number of housing cases covered by legal aid. Now the MoJ concedes it has achieved just one of its four original objectives: to make significant savings to the legal aid bill.
We welcome the MoJ’s recognition that the bill has failed to ensure that legal aid is available for those who are the most vulnerable, and that savings to legal aid may have increased costs to the public purse elsewhere. The report asserts that the government needs further evidence of the knock-on costs of LASPO. In response, the MoJ will now undertake further reviews and trials to try to understand these costs. While we support further study into the full impact of LASPO, people in housing need should not have to wait for meaningful changes to a system that is clearly failing them.
While government carries out their own research to back up the evidence already presented to them, here are some examples of how LASPO has cost the MoJ and other parts of government more than it was meant to…
Costly housing cases
Housing cases are the perfect example of LASPO’s inefficiencies. Although the volume of housing cases has decreased, the savings do not match up. This is likely because cases have to have reached a crisis in order for people to receive legal aid. In practice, this means that someone’s home must be at risk before they can access legal aid. Supporting someone at immediate risk of homelessness is almost always more costly than prevention, and causes needless stress for families and individuals.
The Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP, acknowledged in the review the importance of early advice, which can stop a small problem escalating into a full-blown crisis. We welcome the proposal to expand legal aid to cover legal advice and look forward to the results of the proposed pilot in an area of social welfare law – likely to be housing. We urge government to closely monitor and expand this pilot once the benefits of early intervention become clear. Aside from easing pressure on the court system and lowering the cost of legal aid cases, the human suffering that will be alleviated by dealing with problems at the earliest possible stage will be immeasurable.
The unquantifiable cost of pressure on other public services
The government states that more evidence is required to quantify how much LASPO has affected other public services. While we always support a strong evidence-base, a huge amount of evidence has already been submitted to the MoJ by organisations across the sector, including Shelter.
Citizens Advice research indicates that every £1 spent on advice for housing, debt, employment and welfare benefits could save the public purse between £2.34 and £8.80. For example:
- Without early legal advice, a person with a small, resolvable benefit problem may go on to lose their home. If they are unable to find somewhere else to live, the local authority will spend money attempting to prevent or relieve their homelessness.
- Without early legal advice, a problem that could have been easily resolved ends up in court, unnecessarily increasing demand on an already stretched court system.
The lack of advice for social welfare problems causes far-reaching damage, cutting across different government departments. While it is undoubtedly difficult to quantify the costs, the MoJ has had six years to do so. The government must now urgently adopt a strategic, cross-departmental approach to understand LASPO’s full impact.
While we are pleased that the MoJ has recognised some of the wide-reaching effects of LASPO and is seriously considering the importance of early legal advice, we are disappointed that the review didn’t consider bringing disrepair or benefits back into scope of legal aid. As we have said before, in order for government initiatives like Fitness for Human Habitation to be effective, the government needs to give renters the ability to enforce their new rights.
We are disappointed that there are further delays to meaningful change. We look forward to the MoJ’s further investigations, and urge them to act swiftly on their findings to ensure that no one is locked out of accessing justice.