Every person in Scotland benefits from legal aid according to a new study which is the first of its kind in Scotland.
In addition to identifying the benefits for individuals who directly receive legal aid, which include positive family relationships, better job prospects and better mental health, the research considers the impact on tax-payers and wider society, and highlights a positive financial impact for the NHS, local authorities and prisons.
Independent research and consultancy company Rocket Science was commissioned by the Law Society of Scotland to carry out an assessment of the Social Return on Investment (SROI) of legal aid in criminal, housing and family law cases earlier this year.
They found that for every £1 spent on legal aid in each of these areas, the overall benefit gained by the person receiving legal aid and wider society was valued in many cases, as substantially more than £1.
The research findings come at an important time and will be shared with the current independent review of legal aid commissioned by the Scottish Government.
Legal aid can help meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal for people who can’t afford to pay legal costs. It helps to ensure that people are not evicted from their homes, avoiding the knock-on costs of homelessness, and helps to resolve family issues and disputes, such as relationship breakdown or child custody. The study also looked at criminal cases and the benefits of ensuring people are properly advised and represented if charged with an offence.
Key research findings:
- In housing cases, such as evictions due to rent or mortgage arrears, spending £1 on legal aid can generate a beneficial return of approximately £11 for both recipient and wider society.
80% of the legal aid spent in a case benefits the direct recipient due to fewer evictions and cases of homelessness.
20% of the legal aid spent in a case benefits public services including the NHS and local authorities with reduced demand for health and social services.
- For every £1 spent on legal aid in family cases, which include issues regarding finances, child contact or residence following divorce or separation, there is a beneficial return of approximately £5.
95% benefits the recipient in helping to ensure access to justice, with people not having to represent themselves in court.
5% benefits public services, including the justice system, with more cases resolved outwith the court.
- For every £1 spent on legal aid in criminal law cases, there is a beneficial return of approximately £5.
90% benefits the recipient with the main benefit being securing professional representation from a solicitor in legal proceedings.
10% benefits public services including the Scottish justice system, courts and prison service due to earlier resolution of cases.
Graham Matthews, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Legal aid can be life changing for those who need it – helping to prevent the trauma of people being evicted from their home or losing custody of their children or having to represent themselves in court, which in turn can have other long-term effects including relationship problems, stress and ill health.
“Our research shows that each and every one of us in Scotland benefits from legal aid, not just the people who receive it and for every £1 spent there is a bigger return in benefits. Investing in legal aid to resolve legal issues before they evolve into situations that are even more complex and costly to sort out, helps relieve the pressure and financial burden on our public services such as the NHS and local authorities.
"Yes there continues to be pressure in public spending and yes, there are difficult decisions to be made. There is however, an overwhelming case to be made for the significant long-term benefits of having a properly resourced legal aid system which ensures access to justice for all, regardless of where they live or their financial situation.
“It is why we continue to be extremely concerned at the cuts in legal aid spending in Scotland. There has been another drop this year - with less spent now than 20 years ago.
“The benefits to Scotland’s health, wealth and happiness are clear and the research findings strengthen the argument that investing in legal aid not only helps ensure access to justice for those who need it, it also makes good economic sense for Scotland’s people.”
Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland, said: “This work highlights the value of access to independent, specialist legal advice. It’s not just homes that people keep. With the help of our law service people have improved mental health, better employment opportunities and families are able to stay together.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to do housing casework on legal aid alone. We rely on a combination of legal aid and our grants from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
“Without both these types of funding we wouldn’t be able to prevent homelessness and secure suitable accommodation for hundreds of people each year.”
Steven, a client of Shelter Scotland Housing Law Service, faced eviction from his council house due to rent arrears and was able to get legal aid funding for legal representation.
He said: “If I hadn’t had access to the Shelter Scotland Law Service through legal aid I wouldn’t have known half the court procedures I needed to understand to avoid eviction.
“The knowledge the solicitor gave me helped me to stop panicking and to realise that I was at the start of a process and if I took the right steps I had time to take control of the situation and to save my home. I was only able to do that because of the charity’s advice. There’s very little legal advice available to people without having to pay up front. Legal Aid is a life saver.
“If that help wasn’t available I would have been on the streets by Christmas.”
The Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis measured the financial, economic and social impacts of spending on legal aid, identified the main beneficiaries and placed a financial value on each benefit.
The SROI for legal aid was positive for all three areas examined. This means that for every £1 spent on housing, family or criminal legal aid, the benefit to society created during the case and up to 12 months afterwards is, in many cases, significantly more than £1. This does not necessarily mean that there is a direct financial return of this scale; the calculations also include social impacts without direct market value, but whose value to the beneficiaries can be expressed in financial terms. Rocket Science’s approach follows UK Government Cabinet Office guidelines and the Social Value UK methodology.
Research with members of the public in 2013, carried out by Ipsos MORI for the Law Society of Scotland, found that 81% of the public agreed that legal aid was a price worth paying to ensure a fair society, regardless of cost.