This afternoon’s Lords debate on the government’s Legal Aid
Bill promises to be a heated affair. The Independent’s interview with Baroness Scotland – Labour
peer and former Attorney General — gives a taste, beneath the headline ‘Women and children could die because of legal aid cuts’. But even before we get into an emotional debate
about domestic violence and hitting ‘the poorest and weakest’ — important though it is — there’s one potential flaw that could undermine the whole point of the
proposal: it might not actually save us any money.
Take benefit claimants, for example, who will now longer be entitled to legal aid when challenging decisions about their benefits. The Citizens Advice Bureau estimates that for every £1 it spends on legal aid in such cases, the government saves £8.80 it
would otherwise have spent elsewhere. This is based on the savings made by ensuring that people are on the right benefits — lower healthcare costs, for example.
But even ignoring these indirect benefits of legal aid, there’s a more direct way in which cutting it may actually increase state spending: increasing the number of people representing
themselves. As Judge Robert Martin put it in evidence to the government:
‘We will see more people with cases with no prospects of success because they have not been filtered out, as they are at the moment, through good advice… The absence of legal
help also means that cases will tend to be less well prepared for the tribunal, which will extend the amount of time we have to invest in the case.’
The Ministry of Justice claims that ‘no firm evidence that unrepresented cases on average impose additional operational cost burdens on courts and tribunals’, but the Law
Society accuses it of simply ignoring the evidence from academics and judges, like Judge Martin.
The passage of the Legal Aid Bill through the Lords may come down to other factors, such as Baroness Scotland’s warning about domestic violence. But just as those who advocate cutting the 50p
tax rate remind us that not all tax cuts cost money, it’s worth remembering there are also spending cuts that do not save money — and the legal aid cut might be one of those.