Thursday, 24 June 2010

Legal aid under threat

As anticipated the government has announced its review of legal aid. The announcement was made in a written ministerial statement to parliament yesterday by Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke.

LAG understands that the government is currently studying the previous reviews of legal aid before releasing a consultation paper in the autumn which will outline some options for reforming the system. Kenneth Clarke made it clear in his statement that the priority for the government is to reduce the financial deficit.

Significant cuts in legal aid spending are a very real possibility. In the budget this week the government outlined its policy for reducing the deficit which includes a 25 per cent or more cut to expenditure in departments other than health, education and defence. For the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), a 25 per cent reduction means around £2.25 billion would need to be found from a budget which has already been hit by ten per cent spending cuts over the last three years.

Some savings might be found by closing under-utilised courts and reducing prisoner numbers, but LAG believes that to reach a 25 per cent target significant cutbacks would also have to be made in legal aid. The options are limited. Revisiting the levels of fees paid to lawyers in legal aid cases is not likely to meet with much protest from the public, but there will be increasing complaints if people cannot find help as firms are forced to withdraw from legal aid. Other options include cutting what legal aid will pay for, for example, the government could decide to take help with divorce cases out of scope. The government’s room to manoeuvre is limited due to its obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Finding cash from other sources to off-set the cuts could be a solution. Ideas such as a levy on all criminal clients and using interest on money held by solicitors on behalf of clients have been suggested by some as ways of funding the system. The consultation in the autumn should provide the forum to explore these and other ideas, as some original thinking will be needed if access to justice is to be maintained.

Image: Legal Action Group

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