Cost of living crisis could drive a wedge into justice gap

A positive shake-up of legal aid financial eligibility criteria risks being undermined by a failure to account for spiralling inflation.

The research into the impact of proposed changes to the means test, published today, was commissioned by the Law Society of England and Wales and was carried out by Professor Donald Hirsch, of Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy.

The study found that more generous allowances in the proposals greatly reduce the extent to which people on the lowest incomes are denied legal aid.

For example, at present, a single adult is ineligible for legal aid even if their income is a third less than they need, according to the Minimum Income Standard. Under the proposals, the threshold rises to about the Minimum Income Standard level.

Prof Hirsch said: “These gains will, however, be quickly eroded if the thresholds are not uprated with inflation. The “cost of living allowances” in the proposals are based on expenditure benchmarks that are already three years old and would be in place without revision until at least 2026.

“While the proposals seek to treat people in different types of household equitably, the proposed formula determining the means test level gives insufficient weighting to the needs of lone parents.

“This particularly risks restricting access to justice for people seeking protection against abuse by ex-partners. The report proposes an additional income allowance for lone parents that would make the system more equitable.”

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “Legal aid is a fundamental part of the British justice system. Anyone who cannot afford the legal advice and representation they need to secure justice must still be able to get it, so everyone is equally able to enforce and defend their rights.”

“We commissioned Professor Donald Hirsch to follow up his research that led the government to review its criteria for who can receive legal aid.

“This new analysis confirms the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) proposed changes to the means test should lead to more people on low incomes becoming eligible for legal aid.

“However, MoJ oversights risk partially – and in some cases fully – reversing improvements over time.

“The most significant omission is the failure to uprate cost-of-living allowances regularly in line with inflation.

“The MoJ proposes using 2019 expenditure benchmarks through to 2026, but with the cost-of-living crisis these are already out of date and prices are expected to have risen by a breath-taking 20% by 2026.

“Progressively more people would be left unable to seek justice if this is not addressed.

“The MoJ needs to look at how it assesses income needs for different groups as evidence shows these are inaccurate for actual relative need, which would leave some families out in the cold.

“Single-parent families will be disadvantaged compared with other types of households because proposed changes fail to recognise one-parent families must budget a higher proportion of their income to pay for their children’s needs relative to two-parent families.

“Lone parents also commonly need legal help for family cases and rarely have income high enough to afford it without legal aid – this includes survivors of abuse seeking protection for themselves and their children.

“There is no perfect formula to equalise the needs of households accurately in all circumstances, but it is important to limit the size of inequities across household types, while keeping the system simple.

“Professor Hirsch suggests an additional allowance for single parents which we support.

“Our conclusion from these findings is while we wholeheartedly support the more generous approach to legal aid means testing represented by the proposed changes, there must be more frequent and systematic inflation uprating than proposed – particularly in the present period of high inflation.”


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 22/106

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2022 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022, and 10th in both the Guardian University League Table 2022 and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.