Is the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sitting on evidence about the impact of legal aid cuts to avoid embarrassment ahead of the election? It certainly appears so. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan asked a parliamentary question 16 weeks ago on the number of litigants in person – people representing themselves in court - as a result of the reforms. No answer has arrived.
Now Khan has written to justice minister Shailesh Vara asking why he still has not received an answer. The presumption among those in the Labour team is that the MoJ is sitting on the information until parliament rises for the election, so they don't need to admit how spectacularly wrong the legal aid cuts have gone.
We know that blocking, delaying and spinning the release of information is a key part of the MoJ's political strategy. In 2013, a whistle-blower at the department wrote to Khan telling him that his parliamentary questions were being sucked into the MoJ spin machine before being released.
"I am sure you will have noticed the increasingly tardy response of the MoJ to PQs [parliamentary questions] from you and your shadow colleagues. This is because the SoS [secretary of state] has instructed SpAds [political special advisers] to review every single response to ensure a favourable reply is presented. As you might imagine this has infuriated officials at all levels with their constant requests for redrafts of accurate answers and dragging them into the spin machine."
The whistle-blower then went on to suggest that Khan time parliamentary questions on certain subjects to put a spanner in the works of the MoJ machine. He or she listed the sensitive areas the questions could focus on, where officials had been told to pay particular attention to inquiries, such as first-class rail travel, deaths in custody and various areas relating to the conduct of ministers. Legal aid was on the list.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has written to the justice minister to inquire about the legal aid data
The whistle-blower wrote:
"It seems to me that a judicious and co-ordinated use of named day and normal questions, with swift followup when the late response occurs, would effectively paralyse the MoJ, turn officials against ministers and destroy what is left of SpAds' wafer-thin credibility. A complaint to the parliamentary authorities too would undermine the SoS's weak grip on his department."
It now seems that instead of spinning, the MoJ is simply refusing to answer Khan's questions. After waiting 16 weeks for an answer, the shadow justice secretary has written to the justice minister, the permanent secretary and the chair of the procedure committee demanding a response.
The letter, seen by Politics.co.uk, reads:
"You will appreciate how controversial the government's cuts to legal aid have been, and the widely held concern at the growth of litigants in person clogging up our courts. That is why this response is crucial.
"Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I can't help but think that there is a deliberate attempt to deprive me of data for which I am entitled as a member of parliament. The public have a right to know whether the government's cuts to legal aid have resulted in serious ramifications for the running of our courts service and the delivery of justice."
It’s hard to get firm data on the rise of litigants in person, but anecdotally it's very clear their numbers have skyrocketed. With so many cases no longer authorised to receive legal aid, people have had little choice but to represent themselves.
Divorce proceedings have lost access to legal aid, except in cases involving domestic violence
This causes two problems. Firstly it threatens justice, with many people dragged into the court system unable to know exactly how to make their case. As Willard Foxton's excellent recent report in the Spectator found, judges are quite clear about the repercussions. Mr Justice Homan said:
"I have no legal representation…no expert evidence of any kind. I do not even have such basic materials as an orderly bundle of the relevant documents; a chronology; case summaries, and still less, any kind of skeleton argument. Instead, I have had to rummage through the admittedly slim court file. I shall do my best to reach a fair and just outcome, but I am the first to acknowledge that I am doing little more than 'rough justice'."
Secondly, the rise of litigation in person threatens the entire purpose of the legal aid cuts, because they use up so much court time it is not even clear if any money has been saved. Cases which would once have been dealt with in half an hour now regularly take up a day of court time.
To get a clear idea of the impact of the legal aid cuts on justice and whether they are actually saving the taxpayer money we need clear, prompt data on the effect of the reform. But it appears that the MoJ spin machine has stopped altogether and is now simply blocking information ahead of the election.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
"We are seeking to compile more detailed statistics for cases involving litigants in person in all the courts to add to information currently only available for family court cases. Rather than provide the MP with an answer saying much of the data was unavailable we are instead carrying out work to see if we are able to provide further information, and hope to be able to provide this shortly.
"While the type of data requested is not currently available across all types of courts, there have always been litigants in person in family cases. Judges are used to helping those without legal representation - around half of private family cases before the introduction of legal aid reform involved at least one person who was representing themselves. In addition, figures published in November 2014 show no strong evidence that the length of family court hearings have significantly changed in recent years."