Sunday, 23 March 2014

Legal aid in England and Wales

As I read this official paper (pdf), the government spent in England and Wales £2.28 billion on legal aid (£1.36bn civil, £0.92 criminal)  in 2012-13. The comparable total for Scotland was £0.16bn. The population of England & Wales is 56.6 million, of Scotland 5.3m (the population figures are from 2012, but the ratio between the two countries will practically not have changed in two years). Basic arithmetic shows that the cost of legal aid per head is higher in England & Wales is higher than in Scotland, apparently justifying Chris Grayling's complaint about our costs. (Jack Straw went further in 2007, when Labour was in power.)

Legal aid in Scotland is available for a wider range of civil disputes than in England & Wales - see the Scottish Legal Aid Board's website. Moreover, those who had recourse to Scottish legal aid were generally satisfied with the service they received. In England and Wales, we are restricted to some domestic disputes, serious housing or debt problems, discrimination claims, some immigration disputes, asylum matters and family mediation services. Discussions of legal aid in Radio 4's "Money Box Live" and "Law in Action" in the last year or so suggest more dissatisfaction south of the border.

This all suggests to me that it is the English system of administration which is at fault, and it is this that should have been addressed rather than applying the simplistic cutting begun by Labour and continued under the coalition. This cutting has (arbitrarily, I hope) disproportionately hit the poorest citizens in the adverse circumstances they are most likely to meet.

A start could be made on rate-limiting to stop uncontrolled costs in individual cases, as has been applied in Scotland. This could be extended to fraud cases, which eat into the criminal budget. I note also that some of the lowest costs per head worldwide are in Sweden and New Zealand, whose justice systems incorporate more alternatives to prison. I do not believe that this is a coincidence.

However, I feel that a comparative study of the two systems north and south of the Scottish border will yield positive results - less expenditure on legal aid and hopefully restoration of the legal areas to which it applies. Moreover, such a comparative study would not involve expensive trips to the other side of the planet. :-)

No comments: