Thursday, 11 December 2008

Justice Committee Probes Legal Aid Changes

Lord Bach was called before the House of Commons Justice Committee yesterday (10th December) to give his assessment of the impact of the legal aid changes.

Bach a former criminal legal aid barrister painted a relatively bright picture telling the committee that, “Working relationships between the LSC and practitioners have improved due to the agreement with the Law Society and the recent agreement with the Bar on the Very High Cost Cases panel.” In response to questions from MPs worried about the availability of legal aid he said, “We have not found much problems with supply. The LSC has good links at a local level as it is represented on all 42 Criminal Justice Boards and the 39 Family Justice Boards.” The minister did acknowledge that “the changes have not been easy for the Not for Profit sector” saying they were having difficulties with the switch to fixed fees. Julie Morgan MP also raised concerns about the impact of the CLACs and CLANs on the NfP sector whom she feared were being “squeezed out of the tenders” he said that he would “take back her concerns.”

Committee Chair Alan Beith MP raised the issue of family law cases and the fear that the increase in court fees was discouraging local authorities from bringing care cases. Bach replied, “This is a serious concern which I am giving a lot of thought to at the moment because of the tragic cases of the last few weeks. The government has given £40 million to Local Authorities to compensate them for the increase in fees. This will continue…We can find no evidence that Local Authorities are not taking cases. In recent weeks the number of public law cases has been going up.” LAG along with other commentators believes the numbers of public law family cases are likely to rise to at least 90% of the level before the fee increase and the introduction of the Public Law Outline. Undoubtedly, the pressure is on local authorities to intervene in more cases due the recent tragic cases such as that of baby P.

Overall is Lord Bach’s relatively upbeat assessment of the impact of the legal aid changes justified? What practitioners tell LAG is that the changes have led to cuts in income and some are feeling the pressure. With the recession though it is likely there will no shortage of firms bidding for any new matter starts being offered by the LSC. Especially with legal help work what seems to be happening is that firms and the NfP agencies are being forced to adjust what they do for clients to fit the fees offered. The fear is that clients are getting a worse service.