I posted last year on the false economy of the governments proposed cuts to Legal Aid.
Since then, the bill has taken a hammering in the House of Lords with a record eleven defeats. Despite this the politicians remain determined to drive home the cuts. But there may be some concessions made and so it is still important to understand the issues – particularly where removal of legal aid will not produce savings and might even increase the cost to the taxpayer.
One example is in relation to Medical Negligence cases. Many victims need to resort to state benefits, especially those who are disabled or unable to work as a result of the negligence. Once a case is successfully pursued those benefits are repaid to the Treasury by the negligent party – for example the insurers of a GP who fails to diagnose a serious illness. The payments are made to the Compensation Recovery Unit (CRU) which is part of the DWP. One outcome, presumably desired, of the removal of legal aid is that there will be a big reduction in claims. The knock on effect of this is that there will be a corresponding reduction in the amounts received by the CRU. So instead of the insurer meeting the cost of care, past and present, the burden will fall on the NHS. As far as I am aware no one has produced a report to say what the losses to the CRU will actually be.
Another increase in cost will be to the NHS itself and to the courts. Under the current system cases are screened by experienced lawyers. Only those which have merit are pursued. So the lawyers advising victims are able to filter out those cases which have no real prospect of winning. The NHS never, in fact, sees those cases. Once Legal Aid is removed, those who feel that there has been negligence will take their cases directly to the NHS and from there to the courts. Both bodies will face the burden of dealing with many more cases. It is estimated that a court hearing without lawyers takes about twice as long as one where they are involved.
Are we likely to see an increase in staff numbers or judges? It might be necessary, and if that happens where is the saving? Again, I have not seen any report of what the cost might be.
I hope that MPs will now begin to ask these questions.
In the meantime solicitors will continue to fight for the rights of victims however difficult that might become.