Retreat over 'harsh' legal aid plan

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One of the most controversial features of the Government's planned legal-aid reforms may be dropped following a ministerial concession that it might be too harsh.

July's White Paper insisted that initial fees of perhaps pounds 10 to pounds 20 would have to be paid by all assisted people, even those on benefit, who "issue or defend most types of court proceedings. Further minimum contributions might be payable at subsequent stages in proceedings".

But Gary Streeter, parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, revealed at last weekend's Law Society annual conference that the Government was having second thoughts about whether the provision should apply to people who have no choice but to respond to proceedings started against them.

The ministerial retreat - Mr Streeter has repeatedly described legally aided litigants as "state-funded Rottweilers" - was sparked by a question at aconference last month.

A delegate asked Mr Streeter whether a woman too poor to pay the application fee who was being challenged for custody of her family should simply tell her ex-husband to "have the children".

The Lord Chancellor's Department confirmed yesterday that Mr Streeter believed that defendants should not have to pay the fee, particularly in family cases, and would be seeking guidance from legal-aid practitioners.

The change of heart coincides with publication of a Gallup poll for the Law Society in which 56 per cent of the 2,108 respondents said that even a pounds 10 to pounds 20 fee was too much for pensioners and those on social security. Eighty-four per cent of respondents agreed that current legal- aid spending of pounds 1.4bn a year should continue, at least at current levels, because justice was "too important to ration".

Under the White Paper the legal-aid budget would be capped for the first time and unsuccessful legally-aided parties would be under far greater pressure to pay their opponents' costs.

The latter proposal caused the most concern to respondents questioned during research by the independent research company Eldon Sandys. Respondents thought it "harsh and vindictive".

A total of 81 per cent of respondents in the Gallup poll also thought it would frighten off people with good cases from going to court.