The official government spending watchdog said vulnerable people who need legal help could be missing out – and the Ministry of Justice was failing to keep track
People being evicted from their homes may not be able to get advice from lawyers because of devastating Tory cuts to legal aid, a watchdog warns today.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said ministers don’t know if everyone entitled to legal aid can get it after they slashed spending by £728million in a decade. The stark warning comes as a record number of illegal evictions were logged in 2022 but just 1% of landlords were convicted. Research by housing charity Safer Renting found that 8,748 cases were reported, up by 12% from the previous year.
The NAO said vulnerable people who need legal help could be missing out – and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was failing to keep track. Its report said the proportion of the population within 10km of a legal aid office for housing issues has fallen from 73% to 64% since 2013-14. The report also found the MoJ “has been unable to appoint providers for contracts to provide emergency housing advice in specialist courts”.
Spending on legal aid fell from £2.5billion to £1.8billion between 2012-13 and 2022-23 – a fall of £728million or 28%. Civil legal aid fees are now approximately half what they were 28 years ago, with many providers struggling to recruit staff, the NAO said.
Lawyers last week won a bitter legal battle with the Government over funding for the “terminally broken” criminal justice system. Solicitors told the Mirror there could be other miscarriages of justice like the Post Office scandal if people do not have access to legal representation.
Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The government has a duty to fund legal advice for the most vulnerable people in society. The MoJ has met its aim to cut its legal aid spending, but evidence suggests that access to legal aid services is worsening. The MoJ needs to be more interested in the impact on people of their reforms.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The MoJ must ensure that access to legal aid, a core element of access to justice, is supported by a sustainable and resilient legal aid market, where capacity meets demand. It is concerning that MoJ continues to lack an understanding of whether those eligible for legal aid can access it, particularly given available data, which suggest that access to legal aid may be worsening.”
Law Society of England and Wales Vice President Richard Atkinson said: “Millions of people now live in areas where they can no longer access the help and advice that Parliament has said they are entitled to. The people who are affected most by this are families facing eviction, victims of abuse seeking the protection they need or a vulnerable person denied access to the care they’re entitled to. The MoJ must ensure that access to legal aid – which is itself a core element of access to justice – is supported by a sustainable and resilient legal aid market.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Our priority has always been to ensure legal aid is available to those who need it most – evidenced by the fact that in the last year alone, we have spent nearly £2bn helping people facing legal difficulties, including thousands of families and domestic abuse victims.”