Hold your fire, Lord Chancellor: Ruth Evans calls for a last-minute change of heart over deep cuts in legal aid

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MRS A fled from her violent husband, taking her child with her, and found a job as a housekeeper. To her horror, her husband tracked her down and threatened her. She was advised to take out a legal injunction immediately to prevent him from molesting her. This was duly obtained and served, at a cost of pounds 1,087. All Mrs A had to pay towards this was pounds 40.50, because her net income, including family credit, is only pounds 99 a week. But under new rules for legal aid she would have had to pay pounds 414.50 - more than 10 times as much. Mrs A does not have that sort of money.

She is luckier than 60-year-old Mrs B, though. Totally dependent on state and occupational pensions of pounds 90 a week, and without a penny in capital, Mrs B is involved in a complicated legal wrangle with a relative who claims a legal interest in her home. Under present rules, Mrs B is entitled to two hours' advice from a solicitor under the 'green form' scheme and has to contribute only pounds 19 towards the cost. In future she will not be eligible for any help.

From Monday, millions of people will find that they are no longer entitled to any help under the green form and legal aid schemes, or that the amount they have to contribute has risen sharply. The Law Society, the professional body of solicitors, has won the right to a judicial review of the Lord Chancellor's regulations. I believe it is essential that he suspends his proposals until the outcome of that review is known.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has argued that the average green-form bill in 1991-92 was pounds 82, and that it is not unreasonable to expect a person of moderate means to meet this sort of sum. But can someone with a disposable income of pounds 61 a week afford such a sum?

Other people, currently considered too poor to pay legal fees, will find themselves suddenly deemed able to afford hundreds of pounds in legal bills. For example, under the current rules a family with children aged eight and 12, with a gross income of pounds 11,800, is not liable to pay anything under towards the cost of a case. Under the Lord Chancellor's proposals, such a family would have to pay pounds 580 for each year the case lasts - two to three years on average.

If there is to be equal access to justice, consumers of moderate means must be able to enforce their rights. The Lord Chancellor's proposals turn the clock back to the turn of the century when an Irish judge, Mr Justice Mathew, ironically observed: 'In England, Justice is open to all, like the Ritz hotel.'

One can sympathise with the Lord Chancellor's anxieties about the galloping costs of the legal aid scheme. In a time of recession, a government is bound to seek ways of making savings. But we must not fall into the trap of treating justice as a luxury that can be dispensed with when times are hard, rather than as one of the essential foundations of our society.

Nor should we forget that the current rules are not particularly generous. The income level for free legal aid - pounds 3,060 - is already too low for a scheme that was originally designed to help people of moderate means, and there is evidence that contributions are too high for people to afford. A quarter of those in all cases who are asked to pay contributions towards their costs of between pounds 501 and pounds 750 decline to take their cases further. More than half the people who are told they will have to pay over pounds 926 drop out. These are not frivolous litigants - they are people, as a rule, whose lawyers believe they have good cases.

There is plenty of evidence that the cost, or fear of cost, deters people with good cases from going to law, as the Civil Justice Review found. There is little doubt that the problem of paying for lawyers is a significant factor in discouraging ordinary people from getting involved in the legal process. Other research has found that as many as 73 per cent of people who suffer injuries in accidents bad enough to interrupt their normal activities for between 8 and 25 weeks do not make any claim for compensation.

The Lord Chancellor's proposals will make matters even worse. In 1979, annual spending on legal aid was less than pounds 100m. This year it is expected to have reached more than pounds lbn. Yet the proportion of people eligible for help under the legal aid scheme fell by at least 25 per cent between 1979 and 1990. Instead of penalising the consumers of the legal system by making what the Lord Chief Justice describes as 'draconian' cuts in eligibility for legal aid, the Lord Chancellor should examine why justice costs so much.

Spending on legal services is not confined to expenditure on legal aid, of course. The court service accounts for the largest part of the Lord Chancellor's department's running costs. It planned to spend over pounds lbn on courts and legal services in 1992-93.

The time is ripe for a review of court procedures. The National Consumer Council has called for pilot studies of alternatives to adversarial court procedures to see if they can provide a more cost-effective way for people to resolve their disputes.

The council also believes that a more accessible and efficient legal advice and representation service could be provided by salaried workers in advice and law centres. There is a particular argument for this in such areas as consumer law, welfare benefits, housing, debt and tribunal representation, in which solicitors in private practice seldom specialise. This would leave private solicitors continuing to provide a service through legal aid in the traditional areas of work they are best equipped to deal with - such as matrimonial disputes and personal injury litigation.

I hope the Lord Chancellor will take another look at all these proposals, as well as at suggestions put forward by lawyers themselves for saving money, before bringing his new regulations into effect. When the two most senior judges in the land - the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls - and a whole series of bodies as diverse as the Spastics Society, Age Concern, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux have expressed alarm at the proposed legal aid cuts, it is surely time to think again.

The author is director of the National Consumer Council.

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