Friday, 11 July 2014

Cost cutting does not always translate into savings.

Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, recommendations were made to massively reduce the budget for Legal Aid. The Ministry of Justice has already cut Legal Aid by 8.75% in March 2014 and plans a further cut of 8.75% by spring 2015. Only halfway through the planned total 17.5% cuts then and the Criminal Justice System is already feeling the impact.

The cuts have led to many defendants taking to representing themselves at court, inadequate translation services and an absence of funding for expert reports; all of which have resulted in a rise in adjournments and severe delays to court proceedings. Non-profit organisations who offer legal advice are also feeling the burden as they are overwhelmed with work due to an absence of publicly funded legal representation. The list goes on and on; which poses the question, are these cost cutting measures really translating into savings?

The dramatic rise of Litigants in Person (LiP)

One of the key impacts of the cut to Legal Aid is the rise in people representing themselves in Court (LiP’s). The initial concern with this is that without adequate legal advice, cases are being fully contested at court when they may otherwise have been resolved without having to resort to litigation.

Many LiPs do not fully understand the law, their rights or the Court system. This lack of understanding has a significant impact on the administrative running of Court with staff having to spend time explaining and correcting general procedures to individuals.

Summed up perfectly by the Judicial Executive Board, they stateLiPs often do not understand practice and procedure, how to produce meaningful statements focussed on the relevant issues or how to differentiate between appropriate and hopelessly immaterial lines of inquiry. Delay is the inevitable consequence of the requirement for the judge to explain the basics of the statutory framework and the application of fundamental principles.’

All of this contributes to delays in Court proceedings, further costs and further funding spent on appeals. This clearly suggests that if Legal Aid was not cut to begin with, then time, money and the efficiency of Court hearings would have been saved.

The additional strain on non-profit legal advice organisations

Organisations such as The Citizen’s Advice Bureau, law centres and legal advice clinic’s offer free legal advice (but non-representative) to members of the public.  As a result of the rise in LiP’s many of these organisations have become inundated with work as unrepresented parties desperately solicit what advice and support they can, incidentally creating a huge strain on demand and creating financial problems.

Subsequently, Judges have noticed a rise in solicitors and barristers offering pro bono work, or more worryingly, people have been turning to untrained and unregulated ‘McKenzie friends’. The Judicial Executive Board described some Mckenzie Friends as having ‘their own agenda; some are unscrupulous and prey upon the vulnerable.’ See our previous blog post on 20th May 2014 for further detail of the concerns use of this organisation raise.

Prison Law cuts

Prior to implementing the Legal Aid cuts, George Osborne said, ‘I am reviewing many of the department's policies and will look to identify further savings while ensuring justice is delivered, offenders are properly punished and victims of crime are given the support they need’. Whilst that did sound promising, the reality is somewhat different.

Along with the cuts came a revamp of the scope of Prison law which obliterated most areas which could be handled on a legally aided basis. Prior to the changes, solicitors could deal with treatment matters, sentence progression, categorisation, parole matters, adjudications and sentence calculation discrepancies. Following the cuts it has diminished to only some parole matters (where a prisoner’s liberty is in question), adjudications and some sentence calculations matters.

Although this may help the Legal Aid budget on paper, it’s actually incurring more costs in the long run. Without the ability to assist on parole matters, categorisation and sentence progression it means that prisoners are in the system for much longer than they may necessarily need to be. With the average cost of a prisoner in the UK for the year 2012/13 being £34,766, delays in their progress to release has a very real cost to the country. George Osborne’s apparent only concern is with the punishment and justice part of imprisonment, which also can have a negative effect on the CJS and costs. Without a real and proper focus on rehabilitation in prison with a view to reducing reoffending, there is potential for costs to escalate in line with potential future re-offending rates.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners’ Advice Service filed a legal challenge to the decision to cut Legal Aid to prisoners. This was initially denied by the High Court in March 2014, who claimed the issue was a political not legal matter. The Court of Appeal however granted permission to appeal the High Court’s rejection of the challenge in early July 2014.

The challenge was borne out of concern for the impact such cuts will have on serving prisoners and calls into question the justness of the system. It has already been recognised by the High Court that the cuts to Legal Aid may not even save costs, and now with a case for Judicial Review progressing to the Court of Appeal, the forecast savings cutting Legal Aid was meant to bring about are called into question even more.                          

Translation Service Contracts

Additional changes to the Justice system such as the new national interpretation service for Court have been described as ‘total chaos’ by PAC Chair Margaret Hodge.

The Justice Department attempts to save £15m in translation fees by outsourcing the service to a private firm, The Justice Select Committee Chair, Sir Alan Bleith, went so far as to describe the Justice Department’s handling of the outsourcing as ‘nothing short of shambolic’.

The Ministry of Justice signed a contract with Applied Language Solutions to provide a national service for Courts; however they fell short when they were unable to meet demand. Public Finance reported that, ‘ALS had only 280 interpreters on its books rather than the projected 1,200. It was able to meet only 58% of bookings against a target of 98%.’ The Public Accounts Committee, published in their findings that ‘Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials; individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling.’

The changes to the provision of translation services were an attempt to save the Justice Department money. However, as with many of the cuts, the reverse appears to have happened; longer court proceedings are costing the taxpayer more in terms of barrister, solicitor and expert witness fees, along with the added cost of imprisonment due to extended remand periods.

Real savings or a real shambles?

We appreciate the need for responsible management of the Department’s budget. When the UK economy is in the recovery stages of a double dip recession, it is expected that the purse strings will tighten both on a personal and professional level.

However, the cuts to Legal Aid have resulted in incompetent services at court, risking the reputation of the UK Justice system in an ever international arena, and knock-on effects in all other areas of the CJS. These impacts are being felt after just 5 months since the cuts took place. With another 8.75% worth of cuts still to come in 2015 it is questionable to what extent the Justice Department will make savings from these cuts or whether they will simply further impair the efficiency of the CJS. 

By Chelsea Sparks.

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the firm or its partners. 


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