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Legal aid cuts 'hit 20,000': Changes will deny access to justice

A TOTAL of 20,000 cases involving battered wives and people evicted from their homes will be denied access to justice before cuts in legal aid, imposed yesterday, can be reviewed, the Law Society warned.

The society, which has taken the unprecedented step of seeking a judicial review against Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, over the cuts, said yesterday that it would take at least two months for the case to be heard.

In that time, about 20,000 cases would be denied legal aid, Walter Merrick, for the Law Society, said. 'Battered wives, people evicted from their homes, who need access to the courts to register their legal position, would have been entitled to legal aid yesterday, but will not be today. They are going to suffer a denial of justice,' he said.

The cuts in eligibility for legal aid have been attacked as 'Draconian' and 'wrong in principle' by Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice.

But the Lord Chancellor made it clear that he would not back down. 'His responsibilities are different from mine. I have to consider the question of legal aid from the point of view of public expenditure,' Lord Mackay said in a BBC radio interview.

'What we are seeking to do is limit the rate of growth of the legal aid budget. I believe it is fairly important for this country that public expenditure as a whole should be under control,' he said.

The budget for legal aid was due to increase by 10 per cent a year over the next three years. Lord Mackay said: 'There is not a cut in the budget. Quite the reverse. We have to look at other ways of containing it. This seemed to me to be the fairest.

'What I have done is protect, right across the board of the subject matters presently covered by legal aid, those who need legal aid the most. Those who are at the income support level will get it free.'

Those above the income support level will be expected to contribute towards their legal costs, saving an estimated pounds 43m.