MPs not told of senior judges' legal aid fears

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The Independent Online
THE LORD Chancellor's Department's most senior civil servant failed to admit that senior judges were concerned over legal aid cuts when questioned by a Commons select committee.

During questioning by the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday, Sir Thomas Legg, the permanent secretary, was asked by Alan Williams, Labour MP for Swansea West, whether two senior judges had expressed concern to the department that legal aid cutbacks risked inefficiency in the courts because of an upsurge of litigants in person.

Sir Thomas, who has held his appointment since 1989, replied: 'No'.

Another member of the committee, the Commons watchdog on Whitehall spending had already been told, however, that the two most senior judges in England and Wales had made such a complaint in a letter last week.

That move, provoked by Government plans to reduce legal aid eligibility from 1 April by denying aid altogether or sharply increasing contributions, was unprecedented.

Later on Wednesday, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Bingham, Master of the Rolls, confirmed during a Lords debate that they had sent the joint appeal urging exploration of alternative ways of reducing legal aid spending.

A committee member said yesterday: 'I find it inconceivable that the accounting officer of the department would not know of the letter.'

Sir Thomas, who received his knighthood in the New Year's Honours List, said last night: 'There may have been a misunderstanding.

'When I answered Mr Williams that I was unaware that 'two senior judges' had written to the Lord Chancellor it slipped my mind that the Lord Chief Justice himself had written to the Lord Chancellor. I will examine the papers and if I have inadvertently misstated the position I will write to the committee in the usual way.'

Lord Taylor's attack on the Government's plans as 'Draconian', 'deplorable' and pursued without proper consultation was followed yesterday with a demand by Labour for a Commons debate.

Lord Taylor had said that, 'To proceed as he (the Lord Chancellor) proposes to do would be wrong in principle.' Eligibility for legal aid had already been reduced and 'at a stroke' another 37 per cent of households would be hit.

Margaret Beckett, shadow Commons leader, said there was 'growing concern about the serious consequences of the proposals and their implications for the access to justice of very many citizens'.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, has indicated he has no intention of modifying the plans.

He said that expenditure on legal aid was up to pounds 1,000m a year, compared to 1979 when it was less than pounds 100m. 'This rate of growth cannot be allowed to continue.'