Law: Tough choices will ensure access for all

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, responds to criticism of his planned reforms of the justice system made on this page a fortnight ago, and sets the scene for the consultation paper on legal aid and conditional fees due to be published next week
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To help make sure that the private sector does deliver the more affordable help that I want to see, I am reforming court procedures to streamline and reduce the costs and risks of litigation. That includes extending the informal small claims procedures, introducing fast track arrangements and giving judges a more active role in pushing cases forward quickly and efficiently.

Secondly, I want to see the private market developed to such a degree that as many cases as possible can be moved from legal aid into the private sector. When this takes place, it will then be possible to concentrate taxpayers' money where there is no alternative to public subsidy, and, most importantly, where need is greatest.

I will take the first step in that direction in the summer, when I expect to remove legal aid from money and damages claims which can be carried out profitably by lawyers, without either the client or the taxpayer having to put money up front or bear the risk of having to pay the other side's costs if the case is lost.

Thirdly, I want to make the legal aid scheme itself more efficient. To help do that, I intend to offer legal aid in the future exclusively through contracts. Contracting will ensure quality, and through competition it will enable us both to contain costs and obtain better value for money. Competition will be sharpened, to the benefit of clients by the entry into the legal aid field of new service providers such as specialist advice agencies. We are already piloting such contracts, and I expect all that help to be provided solely under contract by the end of next year.

These steps will transform the way legal aid works. But they will not in themselves fully address the problems which the legal aid system presents. Given the economic and political realities, I judge that the demand for publicly funded legal assistance will clearly outstrip the money we can devote to it. So we need a fourth move - to target legal aid, on both the pressing needs of the poor, and on the wider public interest.

As far as the poor are concerned, we need to focus help on social welfare cases. Cases on issues of employment, on housing, on debt, on state benefits, on immigration and on recourse against officialdom and bureaucracy when it oversteps the mark.

On wider public interest issues, we need to target resources on cases involving novel or significant points of law, or perhaps cases which affect people more widely, such as actions aimed at environmental concerns, or civil liberty issues.

Clearly, most of these reforms must wait until we have proper control of legal aid, and we can judge how much to spend, and on what - and that will require legislation. But even ahead of any new law, some progress may be possible now. If suitable money claims and perhaps some other low priority cases were excluded from legal aid this summer, that would help. It may even be possible to begin the move towards funding some public interest cases which could not be run under private arrangements.

Targeting will involve tough choices. The Conservatives ducked them, by simply tightening the rules on financial eligibility. As a result, large numbers of people were simply excluded from legal aid, even though their needs stood no chance of being met by the private sector.

I know that our approach will, politically, be a stonier path. But we will be guided by good principle and good practice. We will only exclude from legal aid cases which are either low-priority or which should find funding in the private sector. And we will do all that we can to ensure that the private sector delivers more services at an affordable price.

In doing so, we will maximise the total help available to the poor, and to others. We will make the most of public funds. And we will modernise the legal aid system so that it meets its central objective of making sure that everybody in Britain has genuine access to justice.

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