Legal aid: cutting budgets and improving access to justice?

The situation: budget cut on legal aid. The scene: 120 experts working on proposals. The outcome: Dutch Parliament accepts a selection of the most promising measures

Budgetary restraints for legal aid

Many countries struggle to maintain an affordable and sustainable legal aid system. In 2008, the Dutch legal aid system had to cope with a €50 million cut in a budget of €400 million (which is around 0.8% of the Dutch GDP). The Dutch Ministry of Justice did not react to this with across the board cuts in legal aid programs, but started a project that should lead to a vision of a sustainable legal aid system and to detailed proposals that can lead to cost savings whilst maintaining or even improving access to justice.

120 experts from different backgrounds scrutinized five areas for improvement. They studied  the supply chains for the delivery of access to justice for four types of frequently occurring legal problems: (1) criminal law for juveniles, (2) divorce, (3) disputes between citizens and government agents, and (4) clusters of legal problems (multi-problems). A fifth working group took on the general demand for legal aid in the context of the broader legal system.

This interactive consultation process showed how proposals can be developed that increase access to justice while at the same time limiting or reducing the costs for governments as well as for users of the legal system.

The response

The consultation, involving lawyers, providers of information and advice services, legal aid insurers, mediators, judges, consumer organisations, (national and local) ombudsmen, representatives from governmental organisations, the Legal Aid Board, the Consumer Dispute Board, and legal scientists, took three months. Seventeen intensive meetings were organized; a wiki was set up generating 39,867 page views and 4,296 page edits; 46 proposals were developed, of which 11 made it to the short list after being scrutinised for their cost saving potential. These proposals formed the basis of a series of measures that were accepted by Dutch Parliament.

Streamlining and simplifying procedures, strengthening the links between negotiation and litigation, transparency of legal rules (objective criteria) and signposting (diagnosis & triage) are in the top 5 of measures that have been, or are being implemented.

Lessons from this project have been: :

  • The more promising strategies tend to focus on improving the entire supply chain of fair solutions for legal needs, from legal advice to settlement negotiations and court interventions.
  • However, implementation of these strategies is challenging. It requires a form of coordination that is novel for the legal sector.
  • Another issue, not entirely expected, has been that the effects of changes across the supply chain are not easy to forecast. If better legal information about divorce and more on line support for couples are combined with a new type of court hearing, it is difficult to predict the effect on legal aid budgets, court fees may have to be adjusted, and investments in legal information websites may be necessary. A 5% cut in fees for lawyers providing legal aid, or changing eligibility criteria is much more easy to budget and certain as to financial consequences.   

Project details

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