Mackay faces new fight on legal aid cuts: Lord Chancellor refuses to delay introduction despite setback

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The Independent Online
Lord MacKay, the Lord Chancellor, suffered a fresh setback in his attempts to cut legal aid yesterday when solicitors were given permission to mount a second High Court challenge to his plans.

Less than a month after winning permission for an unprecedented hearing into the legality of Lord Mackay's proposals to change the way solicitors are paid, the Law Society was back in court seeking another judicial review. It was given the go-ahead for a full hearing into its claims that proposals to curb eligibility for legal aid are also illegal.

Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor's Department last night insisted that it will introduce the reforms before the case can be heard.

Yesterday, Mr Justice Macpherson agreed to the society's application after hearing that the scheme would deny many people access to justice.

Figures produced by the Lord Chancellor's Department show that the number of people receiving civil legal aid next year will fall by almost 30 per cent. Those that do obtain financial assistance will find themselves paying a vastly increased share of the costs of their case.

Ministers argue that the measures are necessary to restrain a legal aid budget that would otherwise double to more than pounds 2bn within the next few years. But the Law Society, which represents 59,000 solicitors, claims that the cuts have been introduced without proper consultation. It also says the Lord Chancellor is failing in his statutory duty to help people who cannot afford legal advice and representation out of their own pockets.

Lord Mackay did not oppose yesterday's application and agreed that the case should be argued at a full hearing, Michael Beloff QC, for the society, told the court.

Giving permission for the case to go ahead, Mr Justice Macpherson said he hoped it would be heard as soon as possible in view of the 'enormous public interest'. He went on to say that he would adopt a poker face as he 'was the only judge in living memory who has given leave twice for the Lord Chancellor to be reviewed'.

In March, Mr Justice Macpherson gave the Law Society permission to challenge Lord Mackay's plans to reform the way solicitors are paid for criminal work in magistrates' courts. Lord Mackay wants to replace hourly rates with a system of standard fees.

That hearing is expected to take place at the end of this month with the reforms due to be implemented in the summer. However, the cuts to eligibility come into force next Monday, with the full hearing unlikely to take place before the end of May.

Yesterday, Lord Mackay rejected an appeal from the Law Society for the cuts to be postponed until after the court case. A spokeswoman said: 'We think it would be administratively too difficult to stop them at this stage.'

But Russell Wallman, of the Law Society, said he was surprised that the Lord Chancellor's Department had insisted on bringing the changes into force immediately. This could do irreparable damage to anyone seeking legal aid over the next few weeks, and it would be an administrative nightmare to try to recalculate legal aid contributions if the cuts were found to be illegal.