Categorized | Law Updates, Legal Aid

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (part 2)

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (part 2)

The government is pressing ahead with plans to cut £350m from the more than £2bn annual legal aid bill, despite lawyers’ and campaigners’ opposition. A record response of over 5,000 consultation submissions, universally unfavourable, has produced no U-turn. Under the plans, some 600,000 cases of legal aid in England and Wales will no longer be funded if the full package goes through Parliament.

There have been some minor changes to the government’s earlier proposals. The definition of domestic violence in family disputes has been broadened to include providing legal support to those who have suffered psychological abuse. And legal aid to help children with special educational needs has also been restored. Excluding it would have saved the Ministry of Justice barely £1 million and had already caused a political outcry. Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “For many of the parents we support, using the legal system is the only way to get a good education for their child with special educational needs. They will be hugely relieved by the government’s decision to support their right to justice for their children.”

The bill proposes the abolition of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), a non-departmental public body which looks after legal aid in England and Wales. It will be replaced by direct government administration of the legal aid system under a Director of Legal Aid Casework, who will be a civil servant answerable to government ministers. The bill also plans wholesale implementation of the Jackson reforms of civil litigation costs, which will have implications for small businesses and access to justice.

In the Commons, the justice secretary said that he would not abolish, as originally proposed, the current capital disregards for pensioners and for equity in the main home in assessing an applicant’s eligibility for legal aid. In response to expressed concerns he also dangled a carrot when he said: “On citizens advice bureaux and other forms of general advice, I hope to be able to say something on Second Reading—I am making advances, but we will see how much we can come forward with.” But he went on to confirm: “Legal aid will no longer be routinely available for most private family law cases, clinical negligence, employment, immigration, some debt and housing issues, some education cases, and welfare benefits. It will also no longer be available for squatters resisting eviction.”

Needless to say the proposals have had a thoroughly bad press. Linda Lee, president of the Law Society, said: “The government has failed to consider alternatives which would make bigger savings without removing civil legal aid from some of the most vulnerable people in society.” Stephen Cobb QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said: “The threats posed by the government’s proposals are real and potentially brutal.” Gillian Guy, of Citizen’s Advice, predicted that those in greatest need would suffer. Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of disability charity Scope, said: “As the government presses ahead with its welfare reform agenda – which will hit disabled people hard – it is probably more important than ever that disabled people have access to legal aid and advice.”

The Legal Action Group believes the legal aid cuts are penny-wise but pound-foolish. They calculate that £1 of expenditure on civil legal help saves the government around £6 in other public expenditure. As Zoe Williams writes in the ‘Guardian’: “This might be a cut, but it isn’t a saving. It will cost us a fortune.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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