Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Welcome proposed separation of civil and criminal legal aid budgets

The government has announced a review of legal aid delivery to be conducted by Sir Ian Magee. The review will look at separating the criminal and civil legal aid budgets. This is something LAG has consistently argued for in order to stop the government raiding the civil legal aid fund to pay for increases in criminal legal aid. We therefore very much welcome this review.

Unless the funds are separated, government policy on legal aid will continue to be dictated by the invidious choice of either paying for representation to ensure people are not wrongly imprisoned or to get help with housing, family and other civil law problems. The review will also look at providing effective management of the funds and ensuring ministerial accountability for the policy direction of legal aid. LAG argues that it is important to prioritise the independence of decision-making on cases and that the separation of the funds should be more than just a paper exercise easily unpicked when the Treasury calls for cuts.

We have to point out, though, that the Access to Justice Act 1999, which has been on the statute book for ten years, envisaged the eventual separation of the funds by government. This really is a case of better late than never. Sir Ian has to report in January and we believe it could be possible, if he recommends separation, to implement the change this side of the general election.

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