Thursday, 25 March 2010

It looks like a dismal picture for legal services and for justice

24th March saw the final budget of the Labour Government elected in 2005.  On top of recently announced closures of 20 magistrates' courts, the Ministry of Justice published plans to make further substantial savings - see Ministry of Justice.   There seems to be little doubt that further court closures will occur.

The Legal Services Commission - heavily criticised in a National Audit Office report in 2009 - will become an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice - see here.  This move, clearly intended to give Ministers more direct control over expenditure on legal services, has raised concerns that the independence of those services will be threatened.  See also Magee Review of Legal Aid.

Recent years have seen a massive reduction in legal aid for magistrates' court cases and reforms to legal aid are coming into force in the Crown Court - see here.   Further reforms to criminal legal aid are planned including removing some 75% of solicitor's firms from the market.  The result of this will be a much smaller number of firms - (probably the larger firms) - handling larger volumes of work - see Law Society Gazette 25th March.  Of course, as The Times reported 23rd March, some barristers continue to earn considerable amounts on legal aid work.

Her Majesty's Court Service and the Tribunals Service will be merged.  All of this is over and above reforms which are coming due to the Legal Services Act 2007.

Another fact is that the number of "paralegals" has multiplied from 24,509 in 2001 to 51,250 today - a rise of 109%.  The number of solicitors has increased by around 40% over the same period.

The Jackson proposals about costs in civil cases are also looking problematic - see Times 25th March - where it is argued that they are likely to reduce access to justice.

Hardly a week seems to pass without some new "justice initiative" being announced.  Are we in serious danger of seeing justice go down the plug hole?  At the very least there are grounds for serious concern and it is far from easy to forecast just what the legal profession and the provision of services will look like in a few years time.

See also Legal Action Group Blog.

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