England: People with ‘stretched’ finances most likely to be litigants in person

People with “stretched” finances who are ineligible for legal aid are the least likely to instruct lawyers when they have legal problems, ministers have been told.

Concern about legal advice costs has led to a spike in the number of litigants in person, the Legal Services Board said in a report to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The board said there was a link between the provision of early legal advice and the speedy resolution of disputes, noting that at any stage in the handling a legal issue, “people who did not receive early advice were 20 per cent less likely than average to have their issue resolved”.

The comments were made in response to the MoJ’s consultation on the effect of reforms stemming from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which made legal aid less accessible.

Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the Legal Services Board, said: “I am pleased that we have this opportunity to contribute to the post-implementation review of LASPO. Our response contributes our evidence base to this first review of changes to the provision of legal aid in England and Wales.

“What we say is evidenced by our in-depth research into the legal services market. Our research shows that, in recent years, a growing proportion of individuals are handling their legal problems alone and that a declining proportion are seeking advice.

“Actual or perceived costs have come to the fore as a key factor in determining what action people take when faced with a legal problem.”

She added: “It has become clear that individuals whose finances are stretched, but not severely enough to qualify for legal aid, are the least likely to use a lawyer. Reductions in legal aid carry the risk of increasing the number of these ‘stretched consumers’.

“We think it is important to look at what has happened to consumers who are no longer able to access legal aid following the reforms. Research suggests that changes in legal aid may have disproportionately affected certain groups of people such as particular ethnic groups and those from the C2DE social groups. We are also concerned about whether the reforms may have had knock-on effects elsewhere in the justice system and also more broadly in other areas of public spending such as health.”