Parliament and Politics: Poor legal funding 'causing injustice'

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People are being denied justice because public funding of legal services is unfocused and inadequate, according to law reformers.

To provide a better service to clients, the Lord Chancellor's Department and Legal Aid Board should be abolished, making way for a Justice Minister and Legal Services Commission, the Legal Action Group says in a report published today.

The group says legal aid policy has suffered because of the Lord Chancellor's 'disparate' functions - precedence had wrongly been given to professional matters, such as the appointment of judges and Queen's Counsel.

Now that the legal aid bill is set to pass through the pounds 1bn a year barrier, LAG argues that restructuring rather than 'ill-considered' cuts would ensure a better service.

It points out that levels of eligibility for legal aid had already fallen. For example, the proportion of couples with two children who qualify for legal aid has dropped from 57 per cent in 1979 down to 22 per cent in 1990.

Those in need of assistance in areas of social welfare law, such as housing, employment, debt, and immigration, were particularly badly served.

Under the group's proposals, Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, would become the country's senior judge.

He would be replaced by a minister, who would take over responsibility for the courts, legal aid and the funding of voluntary sector advice agencies such as the Citizens' Advice Bureaux.

Roger Smith, director of LAG, said: 'The way funding is organised at the moment means, in particular, that people with cases pending before tribunals and other with social welfare problems such as housing fall through the net.'

The report draws on the experience of other jurisdictions, such as Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, which it argues have been more imaginative and less insular in their approach.

A Strategy for Justice: publicly funded legal services for the 1990s; LAG, 242 Pentonville Road, London N1 9UN; pounds 9.95.

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