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Legal aid overhaul 'may lead to lack of legal representation'


Source: The Telegraph

An overhaul of legal aid may lead to a significant number of people not being represented in court by a solicitor or barrister, the country's most senior judges have warned the Justice Secretary.

In response to Chris Grayling's ''transforming legal aid'' consultation, the Judicial Executive Board, which includes Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, said an increase in unrepresented people would add to the length and costs of cases.

Mr Grayling announced a raft of legal aid reforms, including a financial threshold and competitive tendering between firms, in a bid to save £220 million a year.

In its written response, the Board said: ''A significant number of individuals involved in family cases, or in applications for judicial review, and potentially some defendants in criminal cases whose means exceed the financial eligibility threshold will become litigants in person.''

It said there had already been a ''significant increase'' in the number of cases heard by district judges up and down the country in which one or both sides are so-called litigants in person.

The Board added: ''The inevitable result has been to reduce the number of cases which can be listed each day, with consequent longer term delays in the delivery of judgments in cases awaiting their turn in the list.'

The Board, which also features the President of the Queen's Bench and Deputy Head of Criminal Justice Sir John Thomas and President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, said the reforms could also worsen a lack of lawyers acting in legal aid cases.

It said: "Our experience is that many lawyers have already ceased to act in legal aid cases.

"Many of those entering either branch of the legal profession seek to avoid publicly funded areas if their ability and promise permit them the choice.

"Able practitioners who remain active in publicly funded fields, particularly in crime, family and judicial review, are often in evident overstretch, because, unsurprisingly, the services they offer are in greater demand than those offered by their less competent colleagues.

"We believe that the proposed changes are likely to accentuate this phenomenon."

Other members of the board include the Chancellor of the High Court Sir Terence Etherton, Vice President of the Queen's Bench Lady Justice Hallett, Senior President of Tribunals Sir Jeremy Sullivan, Senior Presiding Judge Lord Justice Gross and Chief Executive of the Judicial Office Jillian Kay.

The response has been published after Mr Grayling indicated he was preparing to rework one of the most heavily-criticised aspects of the reform package.

In a letter to the Justice Committee, he said he expected to make changes to a proposal to remove the client's right to choose a solicitor when receiving criminal legal aid.

After consulting with the Law Society, which represents some 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales, Mr Grayling said he would look again at the issue and expected to allow a choice of solicitors for clients.

Appearing before the Justice Committee yesterday, Mr Grayling denied the decision was a "U-turn".

He said: "I take it that if a Government minister consults, listens and modifies progress it's a U-turn?"

Other changes will see criminal defendants living in households with a disposable income of £37,500 or more stopped from automatically accessing legal aid, while prisoners' rights to support would also be curbed.

In April, reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect, removing large areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid.

Some law firms estimated the reforms would reduce the number of people who qualified for legal aid by 75%, meaning around 200,000 fewer cases, while barristers warned the cuts are the biggest to civil legal aid since the system was introduced in 1949.

  • Geographical area: United Kingdom