Legal aid reforms are forcing cuts in service quality, says report

Providers are hiring cheaper experts and cherry-picking cases, according to the Ministry of Justice

Local organisations providing legal advice are being forced to reduce the quality of their services because of Government legal aid reforms, according to a report by the Ministry of Justice.

The Study of Legal Advice at Local Level was commissioned in December 2008 to investigate the impact of the reforms on the legal aid sector.

The study found that the introduction of unified, regional contracts and the accompanying fixed-fee scheme, which means organisations are no longer paid hourly for their services, is having a negative impact on providers.

It says local organisations are being forced to ‘cherry-pick' less complicated cases, hire inexperienced and cheaper members of staff and take less time over cases than they previously did.

"The scheme does not make provision for providers with a case mix focused on more complex cases, such as those that involve clients who don't speak English, have chaotic lifestyles or suffer from mental health problems or learning disabilities," the report said. "It therefore does not support the approach strongly advocated by some providers in the not-for-profit sector."

Sector representatives said they were disappointed with the Ministry of Justice study.

Phil Jew, head of policy and campaigns at Advice UK, a network of advice-provision organisations, agreed. "The study clearly recognises what the issues are for local legal aid providers, which is positive," he said. "However, it simply concludes that more work needs to be done, when really the Government should be applying the brakes to any reforms that are proving damaging to the sector."

Rachael Maskell, national officer for the community and non-profit sector at the Unite union, said: "We acknowledge that the Government has grasped the scale of the problem, but what is required is the immediate revamping of the Legal Services Commission funding mechanisms. The current fixed fees are simply too low."

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