Leading Article: One law for the rich, one for the vulnerable

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The Independent Online
THE RICH and the poor are supposed to be equal in the eyes of British law. Legal aid is meant to ensure that, in our adversarial system of justice, the wealthy gain no unfair advantage. Founded in 1949, the system was born of ideals similar to those inspiring the NHS. However, throughout the past decade, legal aid costs have increased sharply, doubling in the last five years. The question arises: 'What price justice?'

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, has given his answer. Faced with rising costs, he has slammed the lawyer's door shut on thousands of people by cuts which begin this year. In a full year, 127,000 relatively poor people who would be expected normally to claim free legal representation, will be told: 'No.' Another 150,000, according to a report published yesterday by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, will not receive the two hours of free legal advice to which they used to be entitled.

The report comments: 'These will include those who have no choice but to go to law, perhaps because they are facing eviction by an unscrupulous landlord or are victims of domestic abuse or have had their children taken into care.' Under Lord Mackay's plan, the cut-off point for free legal advice will be pounds 61 a week disposable income. It is an invitation for the rich to bully the poor in the courts.

Both the Government and the legal profession are to blame. Yesterday's committee report said the Lord Chancellor's department had no clear idea why costs had risen so fast, by a third each year. But there is little doubt that lawyers cashed in on an unprecedented boom in the last decade, with the taxpayer fleeced just as much as the private individual.

Legal aid also bailed out some lawyers when conveyancing collapsed with the housing market. Now, when the party is over, instead of the lawyers pulling in their belts and the bureaucrats taking the blame for bad management, the poor are to be denied access to lawyers.

This is a blunt instrument to deal with rising costs. Indeed, it does little to control them in the long run: it merely shifts them from the taxpayer to the poor. It delays the day of fundamental reform until the next time the Treasury beats the fiscal drum and tells the Lord Chancellor to get a grip on costs.

For this Lord Mackay needs a strategy, not a panic measure. The beginnings of that strategy are already in place. He plans to replace legal aid's uncontrollable system of hourly rates with set fees per case. Plans to bulk-buy from legal firms should give the Government better value for money. There is talk of making firms bid against each other for these bulk contracts.

The legal profession, at last seeing that the gravy train is about to be derailed, has at the eleventh hour offered a plan to make cash savings not requiring cuts in eligibility. The savings do not include much belt-tightening, but they are a start.

However, all this is no substitute for a thorough review of the legal aid system, examining for example how funding should prioritise certain legal services. The Home Affairs Committee wisely raises proposals to fund salaried lawyers working from law centres. Until the Lord Chancellor has properly explained what has been going wrong in the administration of legal aid, he should not be rushing around making huge cuts affecting vulnerable people.