Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Legal aid and the election

In the run-up to the general election, LAG has been talking to politicians about their plans for legal aid. Labour indicated that legal aid would be subject to further cuts if it was re-elected. In contrast, the Conservatives would not be drawn on whether they would make cuts, but said that they would initiate a review of legal aid if they were to form the next government. They also want to put in place alternative methods for funding legal aid. The Liberal Democrats probably have the best party policy on legal aid and certainly the most progressive policies on civil liberties in general. When asked, though, they would also give no guarantees about their budget plans for legal aid. On a positive note, both Labour and the Conservatives told LAG that they will preserve the expenditure on social welfare law if elected.

One of the ideas which the Tories favour to raise more cash for legal aid is a levy on the interest on money held by solicitors on behalf of clients. They give the example of France, where 300 million Euros are raised for legal aid services in this way. They have also floated the idea of a levy of £200 on every criminal legal aid client to help fund the system. Even if these ideas are implemented (and they would face strong opposition), given the state of the public finances LAG strongly suspects that any new money will not be in addition to the current legal aid budget.

In the current spending review period which ends in March 2011, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has had to find £1 billion in cuts. In this year’s budget, the government committed it to finding a further £360 million. LAG is struggling to see how these cuts, which amount to over a tenth of the MoJ’s budget, can be made without serious damage to the administration of justice. All the political parties are caught in a budgeting cleft stick of preserving expenditure on the NHS and education, which means the inevitable spending cuts will fall disproportionately on other departments including the MoJ.

Photograph: Legal Action Group

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