Project description

The BBC Shared Data Unit reported that cuts to the legal aid budget in England and Wales were creating advice deserts across the country as local solicitors, not for profits and charities closed their doors.

Our analysis of data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) revealed that hundreds of local providers had pulled out of legal aid work over the last six years, with almost half a billion pounds less being spent on contracts.

Firstly, to form a picture of provision, we analysed the latest legal aid quarterly statistics for England and Wales, sourced from open data published by the MoJ.

We then analysed the latest directory of providers from the Legal Aid Agency to form a picture of current provision across the country.

Legal aid is administered through contracts put out to tender by the Legal Aid Agency.

Contracts such as housing and debt are based on 135 ‘procurement areas’. Others, such as welfare, cover much larger areas of England and Wales.

We tracked active legal aid providers by district authority to see how many fewer were undertaking legal aid work, and looked at provision of legal aid across procurement areas.

We aggregated that data by assigning each provider to their corresponding unitary or county local authority and calculated how many providers were currently active in each area. We then assigned each provider to the relevant procurement area in each area of law to show the current provision across England and Wales.

The result was that we identified and used Carto to map those areas in England and Wales that were not being served by legal aid providers.

All the data we used, the sources and methodology were share with our audience through inline links to Google Sheets/Docs and a Github repository.

What makes this project innovative?

The hypothesis that legal aid "deserts" existed had been mentioned before by interested parties and commentators but this data work of aggregating procurement areas - which differ in size and shape depending what area of law is included - to other more familiar area boundaries, allowed media outlets to pinpoint where they were for the first time. To map them using Carto, required us to create bespoke shape files for different legal aid procurement areas. It may be coincidence but four days after this reporting, the government announced it would delay the publication of the findings of a review into the provision of legal aid: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/justice-ministry-delays-release-of-legal-aid-cuts-review-nhgcdlqv9. A week after this report, the Legal Aid Agency tendered contracts for legal aid in housing law and debt advice https://www.gov.uk/government/news/civil-news-tenders-open-for-housing-and-debt-and-hpcds in Doncaster, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, one week after this piece of data journalism revealed legal aid "deserts" existed there.

This report - published on Human Rights Day - was also significant in scrutinising decisions which affected access to justice, which is a human right. This journalism revealed in six years the number of people representing themselves in court had risen from 10,000 to 65,000.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

In audience terms, the BBC online report generated 170,512 total page views, had an average engaged time 00:58 and 19% total recirculation. It was used by a further 16 media partner organisations (for which we don't have further readership figures), on the BBC national television News Channel, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio 4 - Today, BBC Radio 6 Music, and seven local BBC radio stations too.

It had a more obvious impact in the change for which this report may be responsible. It's difficult to say there is a cause and effect relationship between these events but four days after this reporting, the government announced it would delay the publication of the findings of a review into the provision of legal aid: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/justice-ministry-delays-release-of-legal-aid-cuts-review-nhgcdlqv9. A week after this report, the Legal Aid Agency tendered contracts for legal aid in housing law and debt advice https://www.gov.uk/government/news/civil-news-tenders-open-for-housing-and-debt-and-hpcds in Doncaster, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, one week after this piece of data journalism revealed legal aid "deserts" existed there.

Source and methodology

Firstly, to form a picture of provision, we analysed the latest legal aid quarterly statistics for England and Wales, sourced from open data published by the Ministry of Justice

We then analysed the latest directory of providers from the Legal Aid Agency to form a picture of current provision across the country.

Legal aid is administered through contracts put out to tender by the Legal Aid Agency.

Contracts such as housing and debt are based on 135 ‘procurement areas’. Others, such as welfare, cover much larger areas of England and Wales.

We tracked active legal aid providers by district authority to see how many fewer were undertaking legal aid work, and looked at provision of legal aid across procurement areas.

We aggregated that data by assigning each provider to their corresponding unitary or county local authority and calculated how many providers were currently active in each area. We then assigned each provider to the relevant procurement area in each area of law to show the current provision across England and Wales.

The result was that we identified those areas in England and Wales that were not being served by legal aid providers.

We established which local authorities were contained within each different procurement area for each area of law

All the data we used, the sources and methodology were share with our audience through inline links to Google Sheets/Docs and a Github repository.

Technologies Used

The technologies principally involved in this reporting were the use of Excel/Googlesheets to manipulate and analyse data aggregated through the use of VLOOKUP formulae and pivot tables, filtering and further formulae to establish trends. To visualise the data and make it relatable to our audience, we mapped the legal aid "deserts" using Carto, which involved creating bespoke shape files for different procurement areas corresponding to different areas of legal work involved.

Project members

Dominic Gilbert, Peter Sherlock, Edwin Lowther

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