Second court challenge over legal aid

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

THE LORD CHANCELLOR, Lord Mackay, is facing a second High Court challenge over his plans to restrict expenditure on legal aid, writes Adam Sage.

The Law Society said yesterday that it would seek a judicial review of the Government's proposals to curb eligibility for legal aid, arguing that Lord Mackay had exceeded his powers and had failed to consult properly.

As a result of his plans, due to come into force next week, the number of people receiving civil legal aid will fall by almost 30 per cent next year. The Law Society says this would undermine the 1988 Legal Aid Act, designed to help people 'who might otherwise be unable to obtain advice, assistance or representation'.

Mark Sheldon, its president, said: 'We have been left with no alternative but to take action through the courts to defend the legal aid scheme.' The society will also argue that Lord Mackay failed to fulfil a statutory duty to consult with lawyers and consumer organisations 'before introducing changes of such magnitude to the legal aid scheme'.

Lord Mackay says the cuts are a necessary part of the Government's programme to curb public expenditure. His legal aid budget has risen rapidly in recent years and is now more than pounds 1bn. Without the restrictions on eligibility, it would have exceeded pounds 2bn within three years.

However, he is already facing another High Court case over a second aspect of his legal aid reforms, a plan to change the way solicitors are paid. Last month, the Law Society won the right to a full hearing after claiming that the replacement of hourly rates with standard fees would be illegal.