Legal aid bill 'to be capped'

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The Independent Online
Radical plans to extend legal aid to a range of tribunals are to be mooted by the Government for the first time in a Green Paper proposing sweeping change to the aid system. The Green Paper will be published on Wednesday.

A highly controversial proposal to cap the £432m a year budget for criminal legal aid, which is currently available on an unlimited basis to all who qualify, is also to be floated in the paper - the first fundamental shake- up of the civil and criminal schemes for more than 40 years.

In addition, a multi-million pound "special", or fall-back, fund to meet costs in unexpectedly large cases - such as drug or transport disasters - is to be included as part of plans by Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to impose cash limits on civil legal aid.

The paper - which Whitehall sources have emphasised is "very green" - is expected to argue that there is a "good case" for inviting opinions on whether the legal aid scheme should be extended to representation in all tribunals.

That would mean that cases involving unfair dismissal, sex and race discrimination, benefits, housing and immigration would be brought into the legal aid net after years of campaigning by legal and welfare bodies.

While that initiative is likely to be widely welcomed - although the paper is expected to highlight the risk that tribunals could become too dominated by lawyers - Lord Mackay's suggestion for cash limits on criminal legal aid is bound to spark a wave of protest.

But the Lord Chancellor is understood to be concerned that there is no incentive in the current demand-led scheme for lawyers to keep costs down and make progress on cases. Lord Mackay is said to be particularly concerned about the length of time high-profile multi-million pound criminal cases have taken and the resulting escalation in cost.

Lawyers are already coming to terms with the Lord Chancellor's well-trailed plans to impose cash limits on civil legal aid, effectively introducing an "internal market" for legal services controlled by new legal-aid area committees.

Lord Mackay is expected to argue that, taken as a whole, the proposals would help more people with legal problems while the available cash will be better targeted, and to pledge that the current projected expenditure on the two schemes will not be cut back.