Judges in plea for rethink on legal aid cuts

Click to follow
THE TWO most senior judges in England and Wales have taken the highly unusual step of making a joint appeal to the Government to abandon its plans to cut back on eligibility for legal aid.

Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Bingham, Master of the Rolls, urged the Government in a letter sent last week to explore other ways of making savings in the legal aid budget.

Details of their appeal were given last night by Lord Taylor in a speech to the House of Lords which laid bare the rift between Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, and senior judiciary members over the proposed cutbacks.

Solicitors estimate that the Government's plans will affect 14 million people, either by denying them legal aid altogether, or by forcing them to pay a sharply increased contribution towards their case. For instance, a couple with two children who presently make a one- off payment of pounds 30 towards their legal bills will be required to find pounds 619 a year for the duration of their case.

These measures were 'Draconian' and 'deplorable', Lord Taylor said last night. 'To proceed as he (Lord Mackay) proposes to do would be wrong in principle.' The Government had already presided over reductions in eligibility for legal aid. Now 'at a stroke' and without proper consultation, another 37 per cent of households would be hit, Lord Taylor said.

The plans would either deny people the chance to take their cases to court, or force them to represent themselves, something which could itself push up costs. 'Already, some 20 per cent of the sitting time in the Court of Appeal is taken up by litigants in person.'

Lord Taylor went on to attack another set of government proposals to award contracts for legal aid work to firms which meet approved standards. This step, coupled with the cutbacks in eligibility, could drive small law firms out of business, Lord Taylor said. 'I'm not talking about fat cats with corporate clients, I'm concerned about modest firms which cater for the less privileged members of society. There is a real risk that these proposals will make that type of practice unsustainable and they will go to the wall.'

Instead of pressing ahead with his plans, Lord Mackay should consider an alternative package of savings put forward by the Bar Council and the Law Society, Lord Taylor said. These include a pay freeze and a reduction in the number of lawyers attending court hearings. 'I would urge the Lord Chancellor to pause and give these measures full consideration.'

Lord Williams QC, the former Bar Council chairman, said that the letter from Lords Taylor and Bingham was unprecedented and warranted a response from the Government.

But Lord Mackay showed no sign of dropping his proposals. He said that expenditure on legal aid in 1979 had been less than pounds 100m, compared with pounds 1,000m this year. 'This rate of growth cannot be allowed to continue.'

He said that the actual number of people assisted by legal aid would continue to rise. 'There is nothing . . . to support the assertion that the legal scheme is being destroyed. Fourteen million people will not be affected because only a fraction of that number ever become involved in legal proceedings.'