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The changes to the scope of civil and family legal aid have proved controversial.  Concerns have been expressed about the effects on individuals who are no longer eligible for legal aid to resolve legal problems and on the courts which must deal with increased numbers of litigants in person.  Whether the reforms will generate the savings that have been claimed – or whether the increased numbers of litigants in person will drive up costs – has also been debated.

Have the legal aid changes driven up the number of litigants without legal representation?

The available evidence indicates that the proportion of litigants appearing before the civil and family courts without legal representation (litigants in person, also sometimes called self-represented litigants) has increased since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 took many civil and private law children and family cases out of scope for legal aid in England and Wales from 1 April 2013. Reliable data on LIPs are scarce and the National Audit Office (NAO) has been critical of the limitations of the MoJ’s data.  Most of the data that are available concern LIPs in the family courts, although the NAO has said that the legal aid reforms are likely also to have increased the number of LIPs in civil law courts.

The NAO has reported a 22% increase in cases involving contact with children (Children Act 1989 private law matters) and a 30% increase across all family court cases (including those that remain eligible for civil legal aid) in which neither party had legal representation.

Are litigants in person now qualitiatively different?

In its own inquiry into the impact of the changes to civil legal aid, the Commons Justice Committee looked in some detail at the effects of the changes on the numbers of LIPs and their experiences.  The Committee heard evidence to suggest that not only were there more LIPs, they were now qualitatively different.  In the past, LIPs had been in the courts by choice but now they were there because they could not get legal aid.   The Committee voiced concern that some LIPs might have difficulty in presenting their case.

Particular issues surrounding the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012’s impact on clients seeking help with legal problems, the availability of legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, and the apparent rise in the number of “advice deserts” observed since the 2012 Act came into force are discussed in other Commons Library briefings, available on Parliament’s topic page for legal aid.

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