Thursday, 7 October 2010

Legal aid green paper 'imminent' says minister

Clever poker players look for 'tells' in their opponents’ body language to discern what hand they have got. Members of a packed fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference on Tuesday, addressed by legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly, were all looking for the 'tells' about his plans for the legal aid system. The minister, though, was keeping his cards close to his chest, but he did reiterate some familiar themes, which might give some indication of government thinking. He also told the meeting, which had been organised by the think tank Policy Exchange, that a green paper on legal aid was 'imminent'.

The nub of Djanogly's speech was that spending on legal aid has doubled in real terms in the past 20 years and as his department has to find significant cuts, legal aid will be a target. The minister said that there would be a green paper on legal aid in the next few weeks and reiterated the point he has now made on a number of occasions that the government wants to look at the legal aid system in its totality rather than going down the road of a 'salami-slicing review'. The starting point, he argued, was 'what we need to do to reform the system so that vulnerable people have access to justice'. Ominously, for the legal aid lawyers in the audience, Djanogly talked about what he sees as anomalies in the system such as the higher fees paid for murder trials and that fraud trial fees are paid on the 'value of the case rather than its complexity'.

Some points Djanogly made could have been lifted directly from the previous government’s pronouncements on legal aid. He trotted out comparisons with other countries' spending on legal aid, £3 per head of population in France and £5 in Germany as against £38 in England and Wales. As politicians are prone to do, he was selective in his facts. He did not mention the Ministry of Justice's own research published last year which found that while spending in England and Wales is the highest in Europe, once the total costs of the criminal and civil justice systems are taken into account in the continental inquisitorial systems the figures on spending are similar to the UK.

Another significant point he made, which could have been lifted from a speech given by one of his Labour predecessors in government, was that 'too many cases go to trial in the Crown Court'. When pressed on this point by a member of the audience who argued about the importance of being able to elect to go to a jury trial, Djanogly replied that he was 'thinking hard about the issue as 80 per cent of thief trials in the Crown Court are for less than £200'. He argued that 'other levers such as how legal aid is handed out' can be used to persuade those accused of a crime to elect for trial in an appropriate court.

LAG hopes, perhaps optimistically, that the green paper will acknowledge that much of the cost drivers for legal aid which have led to the increase in expenditure which Djanogly referred to in his speech are outside the control of the legal aid system. Also, expenditure on legal aid has remained static over the past four years. This has been due mainly to the reintroduction of the means test for criminal legal aid and cuts in fees introduced by the last government. While Djanogly could give no indication of the amount which will have to be cut from legal aid, he said that the Ministry of Justice had to find 25 per cent in savings and as the ministry’s total budget is £9.5 billion, of which legal aid makes up £2.2 billion, 'you get some idea of the level' of cuts needed.

In a few weeks we will no longer be looking for clues or 'tells' about the government’s intentions. The comprehensive spending review announcement on 20 October will tell us how much the government intends to spend on legal aid and the green paper will indicate what sort of system it envisages for the future.

Image: Legal Action Group

1 comment:

law jobs said...

I think it's important that decisions are made as soon as possible regarding this. Too much speculation has made the situation seem worse.