Asylum-seekers face cuts in bid to reduce legal aid bill

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The Independent Online

Asylum-seekers will face strict limits on the time they can spend with lawyers and restrictions will be imposed on solicitors attending police stations in an effort to reduce the Government's legal aid bill by up to £150m.

There will also be an attempt to cut the costs of drawn-out criminal trials, such as fraud prosecutions and complex murder cases.

The Government said yesterday that the spiralling cost of legal aid, which could pass £2bn this year, was unsustainable. Under new proposals from the Lord Chancellor's Department, asylum-seekers will be entitled to five hours' legal advice and not be allowed solicitors at their initial interviews with Home Office officials. The department said it had encountered cases of clerks with little or no experience being dispatched to interviews at taxpayers' expense.

In a separate move, each asylum-seeker would be given a single file number to avoid duplication of costs. The steps are expected to reduce the cost of an average asylum case from about £900 to £700, saving £30m from the annual legal aid bill. The saving could be more if, as the Home Office predicts, the number of refugees drops sharply next year.

A department spokesman said there were "major concerns" about 65 London firms concerning the quality of advice they gave on asylum. He said an accreditation scheme for solicitors working in the field would be introduced to put them out of business.

The proposals suggested cutting back on the number of visits solicitors make to police stations, suggesting in some cases advice could be given by phone. It cited the example of solicitors called to a police station at a cost of £69.05 to see a drink-drive suspect who was giving blood and urine tests.

Under the drive to control the costs of criminal cases, legal aid budgets will be agreed in advance, rather than being allowed to spin out of control. The move could save more than £60m a year.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal, a minister for legal aid, said the overall bill had risen from £1.53m between 1997 and 1998 to £1.92m last year.

She said: "Such increases are not sustainable. We are determined we should get good value for money from these large sums in the interest of our clients, often the most disadvantaged in society, and the taxpayer."

Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, voiced concerns about the proposals to limit solicitors' visits to police stations. She said: "If you are arrested ... that makes you very vulnerable and you would want the support and reassurance of a solicitor."