Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Legal aid - death by a thousand cuts

The present government was always unlikely to be satisfied with their already severe cuts to civil legal aid enacted by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of  Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).   The Solicitor's Journal takes a look at the latest Ministry of Justice moves on legal aid - Civil legal aid faces further big cuts.  The further 'big cuts' amount to something in the region of £220m each year.

The Ministry claims that it is Making legal aid fairer fairer for taxpayers and is addressing a number of 'abuses' in the system.   The full consultation paper is at Ministry of Justice - Transforming legal aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system.

The key features in the consultation are:

Chapter 3 - (Eligibility, Scope and Merits) - 

reforms to prison law to ensure that legal aid is not available for matters that do not justify the use of public funds such as treatment issues;

introduction of a household disposable income threshold above which defendants would no longer receive criminal legal aid;

a residence test for civil legal aid claimants;

reduce the use of legal aid to fund weak judicial reviews;

and amendments to the civil merits test to prevent the funding of any cases with less than a 50% chance of success.

Chapter 4 (Introducing Competition in the Criminal Legal Aid Market) - 

introducing price competition into the criminal legal aid market, initially for the full range of litigation services (except Very High Cost Cases (Crime) VHCCs) and magistrates’ court representation only.

Chapter 5 - (Reforming Fees in Criminal Legal Aid) - 

reduce criminal legal aid fees for Crown Court advocacy and VHCCs (both litigation and advocacy), which it is not proposed to include in competition.

restructure the current Advocacy Graduated Fees Scheme to encourage earlier resolution and more efficient working through a harmonisation of guilty plea, cracked trial and basic trial fee rates to the cracked trial rate, and a reduction in and tapering of daily trial attendance rates from day 3.

reduce all VHCC rates by 30%.

tighten the rules governing the decision to appoint multiple counsel in a case,

changes to litigator contracts to require greater support to counsel from the litigation team,

the introduction of a more robust and consistent system of decision-making.

Chapter 6 - (Reforming Fees in Civil Legal Aid) - 

reduce solicitor representation fees in family public law cases by 10%,

align the fees for barristers and other advocates in non-family cases,

remove the 35% uplift in provider legal aid fees in immigration and asylum appeals.

Chapter 7 - (Expert Fees in Civil, Family and Criminal Proceedings) - 

reduce fees paid to experts in civil, family and criminal cases by 20%.

One can forecast with some confidence that even this consultation will not be the last.  It is difficult to see an end to this process other than the (almost) total removal of legal aid and, with it, access to justice.  The proposals relating to criminal legal aid are very worrying and so is the proposal to reduce legal aid in relation to so-called 'weak' judicial reviews.  It is via judicial review that the legality of official action can be challenged and therefore this proposal represents a potentially severe intrusion on the rights of the aggrieved citizen.

There is until 4th June to respond to the consultation.

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