Here’s a quick digest of the coverage the legal aid proposals have received in the Financial Times over the last couple of weeks. If you aren’t subscribed to the FT online it only takes a few minutes to register for a free trail, which will allow you to read all the articles in full.
A generous legal aid system
In an editorial on 4th June the FT expressed sympathy with the government’s aim to reduce costs, and approved its mantra that “taxpayers [should] feel their money is being used wisely”. The UK’s legal aid system was described as “generous” when compared to that of Canada, which has a similar legal framework. This comparison was criticised in a letter on 9th June by Mr Chris Henley of Carmelite Chambers, who pointed out that it had failed to take into consideration the much higher volume of cases per capita that UK courts deal with compared to their Canadian counterparts.
The need for safeguards
At the same time the FT notes that the costs are already being “squeezed substantially”, pointing to the £ 320m annual savings that will be delivered by the withdrawal of large areas of civil legal aid from 1st April 2013 as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’). It also warns that the drive to cut costs should not “create perverse incentives”, such as creating a financial incentive for lawyers to advise clients to plead guilty. Safeguards are needed to ensure quality and access to justice, the editorial concludes, otherwise there will be a risk that principles at the heart of democracy will be undermined in the name of a “marginal fiscal benefit”.
On 7th June FT’s legal correspondent Caroline Binham reported on the letter that Treasury Counsel, barristers used by the government to represent them in cases, wrote to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. It is good to be reminded of how damning the government’s own lawyers are of the proposals which are referred to as “impossible to reconcile with the rule of law”. The FT picks up on Treasury Counsel’s attack on the residency test – which would exclude anyone who hasn’t been in the UK lawfully for at least 12 months from legal aid for any civil case – as “unconscionable”. Such a test would risk creating an underclass of people who would not be able to enforce rights that the law provides them.
On 11th June the FT reported that the Law Society told the Justice Select Committee that it believed elements of the government’s proposals are unlawful, and that it was prepared to take the government to court over them. On 17th June the FT also reported that in Manchester lawyers campaigning against legal aid cuts were expected to join court staff who were striking in relation to pay and conditions.