Law: The cost of legal aid reform

Changes made to the legal aid system must be about value for money, says the Law Society president, Michael Mathews. By Linda Tsang
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The Independent Culture
IN ADDITION to modernising his own style of dress, dispensing with stockings and replacing them with trousers (except for ceremonial occasions such as the Queen's Speech this week), the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has also unveiled the package of proposals as "part of a broader programme of modernising justice", which was included in the Speech.

Most of the proposals to be contained in the Access to Justice Bill have already been trailed in the last year. These include ending the monopoly of barristers appearing in the higher courts, and introducing the Community Legal Service, which would work to match legal services on a local, regional and national basis on a contracted basis to where it is needed.

One of the main purposes of the Bill, and the one that has undoubtedly garnered most of the headlines, is, as the Queen said on Tuesday: "to modernise legal aid and make it fairer and more cost-effective."

The Lord Chancellor has already made it clear that an overhaul of the legal aid system was on the cards. The Bill, which is likely to be published next week, has led to protests from criminal lawyers because of the proposals to restrict criminal legal aid to lawyers who have been granted contracts to provide advice. About 10,000 outlets provide that kind of advice at present. Under these proposals, figures ranging from between 2,500 and 5,000 have been mentioned as being the possible number of contracts that are likely to be granted.

The argument which has been put forward for the reforms is, that under the current law, any qualified lawyer can do criminal legal aid work and then claim fees according to the work done. This does not guarantee a quality service for defendants, or value for money for the taxpayer. Under the proposals, the Criminal Defence Service (CDS) is aimed at ensuring that most publicly-funded defence work would be provided by private-sector lawyers under contracts. But the Law Society president, Michael Mathews, says: "The reforms must be about value for money - not cheapness. Legal aid spending is not spiralling out of control. In fact, last year, spending increased by only 1.2 per cent, while the number of people helped increased by 3.2 per cent. The Law Society believes that all competent legal aid firms should be allowed to do legal aid work.

"If the Government imposes arbitrary limits on the number of firms, this will create an unfair restriction on client choice. This is a serious concern in the area of criminal defence work, where a client's ability to choose their own legal representative is a basic human right."