Monday, 18 July 2011

Bill committee hears from LAG

Last week, LAG’s director, Steve Hynes, gave evidence before the House of Commons committee which is considering the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. He made a number of points, which were intended to challenge the assumptions that underpin the government’s legal aid policy.

The government is fond of asserting that the budget for legal aid is out of control and that the system has expanded far beyond its original purpose. In his opening remarks, Steve Hynes told the committee that the previous government, under the then legal aid minister Lord Bach, had managed to control the budget by implementing changes. He acknowledged that LAG often opposed these changes, but that the budget had been under control for at least the last four years. He pointed out that the last large expansion of the scheme was under Margaret Thatcher’s government with the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which led to the introduction of advisers in police stations: 'No-one is talking about repealing this.'

Government members of the committee had pursued lines of questioning around international comparisons. Steve Hynes quoted from regulations made under section 114 of the New Zealand Legal Services Act 2011, which deal with the means test for civil legal aid in New Zealand. After converting the figures to pounds he told the committee that the New Zealand civil schemes means test is, if anything, slightly more generous than that of England and Wales. He emphasised that the differences in expenditure compared to European and other jurisdictions were caused in large part by the greater number of criminal prosecutions per head of population in England and Wales.

Ben Wallace MP (Conservative) asked if further savings could be made from criminal legal aid. Steve Hynes said that the previous government had introduced fee cuts in criminal legal aid; the last of which were introduced in the current year. He explained that competitive tendering for criminal legal aid is 'hanging in the air' and that this has led to a split in the profession as, 'quite a few of the larger firms believe that if they have the volumes of work from police stations to Crown Court and higher courts work, they would save money, of the order of ten per cent. You can probably say that it will be more than that'. However, he warned that: 'You can make savings, but it means consolidation in the market, lack of choice and the potential for cartels … you can push and push and you will get to a stage where you may lose, particularly at the top end, the advocacy and other skills that you need.'

In answer to a question from Yvonne Fovargue MP (Labour) about the proposed telephone gateway, Steve Hynes said that it could work, but only in tandem with adequate coverage of face to face services across the country. Citing LAG’s opinion poll research carried out in November last year, he said this showed: 'If you want a legal aid system that people do not use, then deliver it through telephone advice.'

A full copy of the evidence before the committee is available here:

A report on the evidence hearings will appear in next month’s Legal Action journal.

Image: LAG

No comments: