In the recent expenditure cuts announced by the government, the Ministry of Justice will see its budget cut by just under Â£2bn over the next four years -with an average 6% reduction in each of the four years covered by the spending review.
Although not as drastic as had been speculated, the budget cut still represents a significant decrease for the department. This has left our clients, particularly those seeking Legal Aid funding, wondering how the cuts will affect them.
In a statement from The Ministry of Justice following the announcement, a ‘programme of radical change’ was outlined. This included plans to improve efficiencies and generate significant savings, by:
- Saving Â£1bn from administration and frontline efficiency, including a one third reduction in administration – the largest single saving;
- Bringing the courts and tribunals systems together in a single agency to ensure justice is delivered efficiently;
- Reducing the department’s central London estate from eighteen buildings to four, saving Â£40m;
- Reducing and reorganising the department’s arm’s length bodies to ensure services are being provided in the most efficient way;
- Rolling out a shared services model across the whole department making use of existing assets, capability and best practice;
- Reducing spending on courts and legal aid by developing and increasing awareness of access to alternative methods of resolving disputes;
- Limiting spending on IT and court projects to essential capacity.
Notably, and importantly for the public, the Ministry of Justice also said that they would ‘consult on how to channel legal aid and related spend to the cases that most require it, saving Â£350m, subject to the outcome of consultation’.
Losing Â£350m from the legal aid budget will do significant harm to legal service provision. Access to justice depends on there being sufficient legal service suppliers willing to undertake publicly funded work across the country.
It is clear that more firms are choosing not to do this work because of the extremely poor remuneration. In the past too much money has been wasted in administration of the justice system whilst at the same time, no regard has been given to the affect that increasing legislation in both civil and criminal areas has had on suppliers profitability within inflexible Legal Service Commission contracts.
One wonders why, if the MOJ under the current coalition government can reduce administrative costs by a third and its buildings in London from eighteen to four saving Â£1bn, how we ever got to the current position in the first place! The answer is, in my view, that the MOJ is similar to the National Health Service – where too much has been spent on administration rather than front line services.
So I welcome the MOJ’s undertaking to transform itself and the court systems into a more efficient and cost effective organisation. I have been calling for it for many years and it is long overdue. I hope that some of the savings can be directed towards ensuring access to justice by increasing remuneration to solicitors who are in the front line of the justice system and in doing so, encourage newly qualified lawyers to undertake a career in publicly funded work. But I won’t be holding my breath!