The plans are part of the most radical shake-up of legal aid for nearly half a century, launched in a Government White Paper yesterday in a bid to stem the spiralling pounds 1.4bn bill and stop the financing of undeserving cases by the taxpayer.
Unveiling the long-awaited paper, Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, declared that the public saw legal aid as "wasteful in supporting too many weak and undeserving cases; as over-priced, with taxpayers on moderate incomes, who would not qualify for legal aid if they sought it, paying what appear to them to be huge lawyers' fees; and as unfair to the opponents of legally aided people who too often feel that they have had to give in on cases that they would have a good chance of winning".
The Government's insistence that the system is weighted too heavily in favour of the assisted person has led to a radical proposal for all applicants - even those on income support and free legal aid without a contribution - to pay a pounds 10 or pounds 20 minimum fee for issuing or defending most types of civil court proceedings, and a new rule making contributions to continue to be made until the cost of the case has been met.The current rule that protects unsuccessful aided litigants from paying their opponents cost would also go, exposing them to having legal fees clawed back over a period of years.
In criminal cases, defendants would still receive free legal advice at a police station and for their first appearance at a magistrates' court, and people on benefit would continue to qualify for free help and represent- ation in the early stages of a case. But all other defendants on legal aid who need a lawyer would pay a fixed-rate sum on their second court appearance and in longer cases would be subjected, as at present, to detailed means tests.
Amid a plethora of protests against the proposals, the National Consumer Council accused the Government of planning "unsubstantiated and dangerous" changes on the wrong assumption that frivolous people were queuing up to bring trivial cases.
Roger Smith, chairman of the Legal Action Group, the legal aid campaigning organisation, said: "Access to justice will be rationed, with people having to compete for funds within a fixed budget. They will have to pay increased contributions towards the cost of their case. Unsuccessful litigants will be liable to pay the costs of the other side. In an average case their total liability could be pounds 5,000, to be paid off long after the case has ended."
Derek Sands, chairman of the Law Society's courts and legal services committee, said: "Virtually no one will have their access to justice improved as a result of these proposals. Legal aid clients will risk a lifetime of debt if they lose. For many people it will be impossible to enforce or defend their legal rights."
Subject to details being worked out in regulations, the paper proposes a new test for weeding out unmeritorious claims based on whether a case "deserves" a share of the public funds available. The emphasis on priorities and resources is likely to mean that more foreigners are excluded.
Cases that have triggered the clampdown on "undeserving" cases include the granting of aid to ex-RAF officer Simon Foster to try to force his health authority to give him a sex change, to Jawad Hashim, a former aide to Saddam Hussein, who got pounds 4m to defend a pounds 34m fraud case brought by the Arab Monetary Fund. It emerged this week that cancer patient Cyril Smith has been given aid to sue the NHS because he was not dead.
The proposed new mechan-ism for excluding unmeritorious claims will increase the chances of the Paper securing a legislative slot in this autumn's Queen's Speech.
But Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, said Labour rejected a "crude, budget-capping" approach, adding: "These Treasury-driven proposals cut back on justice for those currently in receipt of legal aid."
Comment, page 13
The rich and infamous who had assistance
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Andreas Pavel: A German, ran up pounds 500,000 trying to prove that he, not Sony, invented the Walkman
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