Cut both ways: why are supply and demand for legal aid both falling?
While social security tops up income, spending on public services is essential in affording people on low incomes access to ‘goods’ that most could not otherwise afford – healthcare, education, transport and so on. These tend to be most important for people at the bottom end of the income spectrum, although the reverse is true in the case of some services, such as trains. Measured as ‘benefits in kind’, public services are worth an additional £7,500 per annum on average to people in the poorest quintile, compared to £5,500 per annum for the richest quintile.
We look at both universal services and means tested services in our report on poverty and social exclusion. In terms of health and educational outcomes, there is still a great deal of inequality between those at the bottom and those at the top. While health inequalities are closing the gap in educational attainment between pupils eligible for free school meals and other pupils has remained steady.
Means-tested interventions such as free school meals, local authority care and legal aid provide targeted help to low income families. The case of legal aid since 2013 is illustrative of how cuts and reforms to means tested services affect people on low incomes. The latest legal aid data show that the number of cases granted civil legal aid for legal advice fell from 930,000 in 2009/10 to 170,000 in 2014/15, with welfare and debt cases almost disappearing entirely between 2012/13 and 2013/14.
Peculiarly, while demand for services such as social care and health is rising with the demands of a growing and ageing population, demand for legal aid is seemingly going down despite the cuts, with the actual number of cases granted civil legal aid at 300,000 significantly less than the number expected at 360,000. This could be taken to mean that poverty is less of a problem than it was before the reforms.
But demand and supply aren’t simply pulling in opposite directions: reforms designed to save money can actually appear to reduce demand. The Justice Committee found that poor implementation of the legal aid reforms combined with poor measures to ensure access for marginalised and vulnerable people is in part to account for the falling uptake in civil legal aid since April 2013 and the resultant underspend.
The mandatory telephone gateway for three areas of law – debt, discrimination and education – has been criticised for granting poor access to legal aid for people with mental health issues or English as a second language. One aspect of this is to do with how the gateway service is delivered. The gateway operators are non-experts in legal advice dependent on a script, limiting the scope for informed responses to complex issues and legal problems faced by particular service users.
The Public Law Project adds that limited awareness among potential clients can explain some of this suppressed demand, and suggests that the gateway has acted as a barrier to access to justice. This is particularly worrying given the importance of legal aid in making access to justice possible for those on low incomes. In the case of debt, the National Audit Office analysis of Legal Aid data shows that 2,400 cases were granted legal aid through the gateway compared to 17,500 expected. This comes at a time when demand for debt advice should be soaring, with a quarter of working-age adults in poverty are behind with bills.
When we look at, say, benefit cuts, we are talking about financial support being reduced by a percentage, sometimes a large one. But legal aid for welfare and debt cases has been reduced to zero. Moreover, what remains of the system has been made harder to access – artificially suppressing the demand as well as cutting the supply. In doing so, it robs people of the opportunity to overcome short term financial problems. As a result, these cuts risk turning short spells of poverty into deeper, longer problems.