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Law Society Gazette: Government admits it cannot produce 'robust' PI claims data

Law Society Gazette:

The government department responsible for collating information on personal injury claims has admitted it has not got the capacity to supply reliable data.

A report by defendant firm Weightmans, uncovered and shared today by a claimant firm, says a freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions was denied because figures could not be accurately supplied.

The firm was putting together a third edition of an annual report into the PI sector and asked the DWP for an update to the compensation recovery unit data held by the department.

That request was declined, according to Weightmans, on the basis that 'due to unforeseen circumstances', civil servants 'no longer have the expertise in the Compensation Recovery Unit to produce robust data'.

The report, published in February, notes this lack of expertise came at a time when the government was consulting on the future of low value personal injury claims, stating the inability to produce robust data is a 'concern' and 'perhaps one that would be damaging if it was picked up by the claimant lobby'.

The number of claims is a hotly disputed area in the debate over the need for further reform of the sector. The government had to scrap reforms contained in the Prisons and Courts Bill because of the election, but they were resurrected in the Queen's speech last month through the forthcoming Civil Liability Bill. Background notes to the speech described a 'rampant compensation culture', and it is clear the government has based policy on the belief that claims numbers are too high.

Claimant firm Thompsons Solicitors, which has spearheaded a campaign against reforms and which shared the report, said the Ministry of Justice cannot proceed with reforms, including a new tariff system for RTA claims, when it has no evidential basis for making such significant change.

Tom Jones, head of policy at the firm, said Weightmans' admission was a 'damning indictment' of the government's case and undermined the very basis for reform. 'We now know why they are so reliant on statistics from the very insurers who stand to gain,' he added. 'How can they possibly assert that there is a 'rampant compensation culture' when the truth is they have no evidence to back it up?'

The Gazette has approached the MoJ for comment.

Law Society Gazette LASPO review

Law Society Gazette

Is access to justice an essential public service, akin to state schooling and lifelong healthcare free at the point of delivery?

The Law Society believes it is – or at least should be – and pushes the point hard in a damning new report on the social consequences of swingeing funding and scope cuts to civil legal aid. Barriers erected by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders act (LASPO) in 2013 have denied justice to some of the most vulnerable people in society, Chancery Lane argues in Access Denied? LASPO four years on.

It would be obtuse to deny that the report is exquisitely timed. ‘Shrinking the state’ in the name of the dominant ideology of the last four decades is an establishment article of faith under intense critical scrutiny in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.

‘Legal advice and access to justice are fundamentals for a dynamic society – one in which the powerful are held to account and the public interest promoted to protect the weak.’

Paring legal aid did not begin with Conservative (or indeed Conservative-led) governments, of course. Under New Labour, spending on core civil legal aid – housing, employment, community care and benefits – fell by 24% in real terms between 1997 and 2006. ‘This makes a mockery of Labour’s rhetoric on social exclusion, and its mantras on fairness and the rule of law as a British value,’ one newspaper critic raged at the time.

Fees paid for legal aid have not been increased in line with inflation since the second year of Tony Blair’s first administration in 1998/99 – a real-terms cut of more than a third.

The suspicion, then as now, is that successive governments have allowed civil legal aid to wither away, confident in the knowledge that this particular manifestation of the post-war welfare state has rather less political traction than crumbling schools and hospitals.

But what LASPO has done is make matters much worse, according to the Society. LASPO part 1 sought to prune annual spending by £450m, but the demographics of legal aid recipients before 2012 ‘clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived’, the report says.  

‘Legal aid is a lifeline for the vulnerable,’ Bourns added. ‘Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers money.

‘Failure to get early expert legal advice can result in problems escalating dramatically, when they could have been nipped in the bud. The cuts have led to many people facing court unrepresented, in cases where lawyers would have resolved the issues without involving the court.’

Access Denied? argues strongly that excluding lawyers from the process has proved a disastrous own goal. Research is quoted showing that a typical young person with a civil legal problem costs local health services, housing services and social services around £13,000 if they cannot receive early advice.

Throughout the passage of LASPO ministers also insisted cuts to early advice in family law would be offset by increased uptake in the use of mediation, and that those whose fundamental rights were at risk would be protected through exceptional case funding (ECF). But this has not happened – mediation cases have fallen and applications for exceptional funding have proved far lower than expected.

The Society believes this is easily explained. Ministers failed to take account of the fact that solicitors providing early advice were a significant source of referrals to mediation; and not only are ECF applications both difficult and time-consuming, solicitors get paid only if the application is successful.

Bourns added: ‘Removing lawyers from the process is a false economy. The cuts in legal aid for family law have put people off seeking advice and support from solicitors who can explain where they stand and what their rights are. Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break-up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties.

‘The previous government was about to commence a comprehensive post-implementation review of both parts 1 and 2 of LASPO before the election was called. We hope that the new government will be able to commit to continue with this.’

'Access Denied': Law Society's 25-point plan to salvage civil justice following government cuts

Law Society Gazette:

The Law Society is calling for a root-and-branch overhaul of civil legal aid provision to help repair the damage inflicted by deep cuts four years ago.

In a report* published today, Chancery Lane says spending and eligibility curbs implemented through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 have denied justice to the vulnerable, created chaos in the courts and shifted costs to other state agencies - including the NHS.

The Society also urges the new government to get on with the post-implementation review of LASPO set in train earlier this year by now departed justice minister Sir Oliver Heald. The review was aborted by the general election.

LASPO removed lawyers from the justice process to save £450m a year. But this has proved a ‘false economy’ by deterring people from seeking early advice and shunting problems elsewhere, the Society alleges. 

President Robert Bourns said: ‘The demographics of legal aid recipients before 2012 clearly indicate these cuts have fallen disproportionately on the most economically deprived and vulnerable members of society. Early legal advice can help people sort out their problems and prevent them from having to rely on welfare support or involve the courts. This makes a real difference to them but also saves taxpayers’ money.’

He added: ’Behind the data are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, challenges to welfare benefits assessments, employment disputes, or immigration difficulties.’

The Society’s report partly echoes widespread criticism of the reforms from other influential quarters, including the Commons justice committee of MPs. In 2015 the committee reported that the changes had led to a ‘substantial’ increase in litigants in person, growing pressure on the courts, a fall in mediation and reports of ‘advice deserts’.

The timing of Chancery Lane’s own review is opportune, with media commentators questioning whether the restriction of legal aid in housing may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The report points out that some housing cases are no longer eligible for legal aid, adding that ‘people now have a stark choice: to pay for their own legal advice, represent themselves, or be excluded from the justice system altogether’. Bourns added: ’There have been reports that tenants of Grenfell Tower were unable to access legal aid to challenge safety concerns because of the cuts. If that is the case then we may have a very stark example of what limiting legal aid can mean.’

The report contains 25 recommendations for reform and restitution of civil legal aid provision (below). These include: reviewing and uprating the means test; commissioning an independent review of the system’s sustainability; and reinstating legal aid for early advice in family cases.

Snap Election pulls the rug from under the Prison and Courts Bill (for ever or for now..?)

It appears that the legislative burden placed on parliament by the snap election in addition to Brexit has caused the Prison and Courts Bill to be scrapped.

Law Society Gazette link: https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/prisons-and-courts-bill-scrapped/5060715.article