Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Legal aid bill

The long-awaited Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was published this morning and then unpublished by the government - it seems it was posted on the web by mistake! We expect it to be posted on the House of Commons' website again once the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has made a statement to parliament around 3.30 pm.

It would seem from reading the bill that the bulk of the cuts trailed in the consultation paper last year will go ahead. Some are detailed in the bill, for example, advice on benefits is excluded from the legal aid scheme in Schedule 1 clause 15 (see page 116 of the bill).

LAG believes the legal aid cuts are penny-wise, but pound-foolish. The bulk of them fall on the sort of face-to-face advice services which can deal with legal problems before they spiral out of control and lead to expensive court cases. LAG calculates that the £49m in legal aid cuts to housing, welfare benefits, debt and employment will ultimately cost the government £286.2 million in costs to other public services. In other words, £1 of expenditure on civil legal help saves the government around £6 in other public expenditure.

The bill proposes the abolition of the Legal Services Commission (LSC) as a separate organisation, to be replaced by direct government administration of the legal aid system under a Director of Legal Aid Casework who will be a civil servant. The LSC currently makes decisions on entitlement to legal aid and is controlled by an independent board.

Under the government’s proposals, decisions on entitlement to legal aid will be taken by civil servants who are directly answerable to government ministers. While the bill does say that ministers are delegating the decision-making on entitlement to legal aid and will not interfere in individual cases, LAG believes an independent appeals system is essential to eliminate the risk of real or perceived political bias in decisions on entitlement. Otherwise, the government will be seen to be acting as judge and jury on whether cases brought against it should be supported by legal aid.

The July Legal Action magazine will give more details about the bill and LAG’s conference on 4 July will be an opportunity to hear from speakers reacting to the bill, including Jonathan Djanogly MP, the minister with responsibility for legal aid.

Image: Legal Action Group

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