Does cost cutting legal aid translate into savings?
The Ministry of Justice’s has cut their budget in the last few years for legal aid; this has seen that some areas budget in March 2014 fall by 8.75% has continued to fall consistently every year. This has hit the Criminal Justice System hard in more ways than one as the cuts have led to many defendants representing themselves.
One of the main results from the legal aid cuts is a rise in people representing themselves in Court (LiP’s). Many of these people do not understand their full rights, the Court system or fully understand the law. As a result this has a significant impact on the Court in many ways.
This in turn has resulted in longer Court hearings, Inadequate translation services resulting in a rise in adjournments or severe delays, Non-profit organisations offering legal advice being inundated with work and an absence of funding for expert reports. The list goes on and on; which poses the question, are these cost cuts really translating into savings?
The rise in LiP’s has affected the Court administratively as many do not fully understand practices and the procedures, how to submit certain documents or how to submit applications etc. As a result many of the administrative staff has been spending a lot more time explaining general procedures or trying to make contact with the individuals. Thus delays are an inevitable consequence of the requirement for the judge to explain the basics of the statutory framework and the application of fundamental principles.
Judge’s spend a lot of their time doing legal research where there are questions of law and do not have the benefit of a properly prepared skeleton arguments. All of this contributes to further delays in Court proceedings, further costs and further funding spent on appeals. All of this points to the fact that if Legal Aid was not cut to begin with then time, money and the general running of Court hearings would have been saved. As a result many of the non-profit legal advice centres have become inundated with work, and are struggling with their own funding issues.
Organisations such as The Citizen’s Advice Bureau, law centres and legal advice clinic’s offer free legal advice to members of the public, however, their services do not include free legal representation.
Subsequently, Judges have noticed that some solicitors and barristers are doing pro bono work or people have been turning to untrained and unregulated ‘McKenzie friends’ to assist them. The Judicial Executive Board described some Mckenzie Friends as having ‘their own agenda; some are unscrupulous and prey upon the vulnerable’. They are not legally qualified, not regulated, have little to no training and most do not have professional indemnity insurance.
Whilst people will be relying on their advice and assistance, much of their information could potentially be incorrect. Whereas trained solicitors have legal qualifications, training, professional indemnity insurance and are carefully regulated.
Ultimately, if costs are being incurred, time is being wasted and incorrect advice is being provided, surely Legal Aid should not have been cut at all and definitely not cut in the future.
In regards to Translation Contract the Ministry of Justice have continued to introduce additional cuts and changes to the Justice system. This has been described as ‘total chaos’ by PAC Chair Margaret Hodge when commenting on the Translation Contract which would provide a national interpretation service for Courts.
The Justice Department’s attempts to save £15m in translators fees by outsourcing translation services to a private firm has been further criticised by the Justice Select Committee. The Committee Chair, Sir Alan Bleith, went so far as to describe the Justice Department’s handling of the outsourcing as ‘nothing short of shambolic’.
The Ministry of Justice signed a contract with Applied Language Solutions with an aim to provide a national interpretation service for Courts. However, it fell short when it was unable to meet demand. Public Finance reported that, ‘ALS had only 280 interpreters on its books rather than the projected 1,200. It was able to meet only 58% of bookings against a target of 98%.’ This resulted in more adjournments, discarded trials and pointless hearings, defendants kept on remand solely because there was no translator; which, in turn has contributed to further costs and wasting of Court time.
The Public Accounts Committee, published in their findings; ‘Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trial; individuals have been kept on remand solely because not interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling.’
The changes to the provision of translation services were an attempt to save the Justice Department money. However, as with many of the Justice Department’s cuts, the effect has been the straining resources elsewhere in the system.
Providing proper translation services is vital for UK justice. The government needs to invest in order to provide this service adequately, or risk the integrity and reputation of the UK justice system; one of the UK’s key assets when it comes to attracting foreign investment. Court proceedings are taking longer, costing the taxpayer more in terms of staff costs, barrister fees, solicitors, and expert witness fees. Criminal defendants are being remanded in custody unnecessarily, increasing the costs in terms of imprisonment.
We appreciate the need for responsible management of the Department’s budget; however, if it fails to provide a competent service, the cuts in costs may ultimately drive up expenditure overall.