'False' savings from legal aid cuts


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The Independent Online

Radical proposals to curtail legal aid are based on false economy and should be halted until all the unintended consequences are properly calculated, a new report by King's College London (KCL) warns.

Almost 60 per cent of the savings predicted by the Ministry of Justice will simply shift to other government departments, weighing particularly heavy on the coffers of health, business and the Treasury, according to the report commissioned by the Law Society. The MoJ expects to save £239m a year by slashing legal aid in family law, social welfare and clinical negligence cases. But this would trigger knock-on departmental costs worth £139m as courts fill-up with people trying to represent themselves or else turn to state-subsidised mediation.

The report comes as the House of Lords resumes debate of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which the MoJ hopes will help it make annual savings of £2bn by 2015. It will boost claims by a growing number of cross-party peers proposing an amendment, to be voted on tonight, which supports delaying the reforms until the Government carries out a comprehensive assessment of the wider, unintended costs to the taxpayer.

The exclusion of clinical negligence from legal aid, which is most widely opposed, would cost the NHS three times more than the MoJ would save, as trusts take out expensive insurance policies instead. The expected net loss, calculated by KCL as £18million, excludes the substantial costs linked to individual cases, which could see more reliance on emergency NHS and social services and longer periods off work.

Dr Graham Cookson, report author from the KCL Department of Management, said: "My call, which echoes the Justice Select Committee, is for the MoJ to publish a detailed account of the true impact of the Bill before it is enacted. It is then up to Parliament to decide what to do. My analysis shows the proposed changes are based on false economy and will actually cause problems."

The legal aid tab was £2.1bn in 2009/10; just less than half was spent on civil and family cases and those seeking compensation for NHS mistakes. The MoJ wants to cut the bill by almost a quarter, affecting around 600,000 people a year, as the system is no longer affordable.

But assertions about a compensation culture are wrong as civil legal aid costs fell over the past decade, argues the Law Society. Its Chief Executive, Desmond Hudson, said: "The concepts of fairness and justice and access to justice are not going to be the same if this Bill is passed."