Plans to improve public confidence in the legal aid system, tackle towering bills and make the system more efficient have today been put out to consultation by the Ministry of Justice.
The Transforming Legal Aid consultation comes at the same time as the Justice Secretary signalled his intent to explore ways of making convicted criminals pay for more of their criminal justice costs, which could include paying back their court costs and legal aid.
With criminal legal aid now costing taxpayers more than £1 billion every year, the Government is tackling areas which are destroying public confidence – such as wealthy defendants who can afford to pay their own costs routinely receiving legal aid, prisoners being given legal aid for unnecessary issues, a small amount of high cost cases swallowing up many millions in public money and immigrants who have barely stepped over the border, or may even be here illegally, qualifying for civil legal aid.
The consultation published today puts forward proposals to make the criminal legal aid system operate more efficiently and save £220 million from legal aid bills in 2018/19. It suggests:
- Removing criminal legal aid in prison law cases that do not justify the use of public money – such as complaints about the category of prison or correspondence a prisoner is allowed. Many such cases can be addressed by the prisoner complaint system – as well as other mechanisms. This proposal is expected to see around 11,000 fewer criminal legally-aided cases brought by prisoners every year.
- Introducing a threshold on Crown Court legal aid to stop wealthy defendants with an annual household disposable income of £37,500 or more being automatically granted legal aid, which means we have to fight to get the money back after their trial.
- Introducing a residency test so that only those with a strong connection to the UK are able to receive civil legal aid.
- Discouraging weak judicial review cases by tightening up the payment mechanism, only paying providers for work done on bringing a claim once the judge has agreed the case is strong enough to proceed.
- Making it harder for claimants to use civil legal aid to bring speculative cases by tightening the test so that all cases must have at least a 50% chance of success to be funded.
- Introducing competition for legally-aided advice and representation (not including Crown Court advocacy). The current position of administratively set and unnecessarily complex fees – with over 1600 organisations providing legally-aided services across the country – does not ensure best value for money and provides little scope for businesses to adapt to changes in volumes of work or to restructure to deliver services more efficiently.
- Restructuring the Crown Court advocacy fee scheme by paying the same rates to advocates irrespective of whether there is an early or a late guilty plea or a short trial. This proposal provides more incentive to complete cases as early as possible, supporting wider work to make the criminal justice system more effective. We also propose to reduce the use of more than one counsel for each defendant. These proposals, and cuts to Very High Cost Cases will target lawyers on the highest incomes, with advocates at the lower end of the scale receiving a small increase.
- Reducing the amount spent on Criminal Very High Cost Cases by 30%. These are the small number of long-running cases which attract a disproportionately high level of spend. Approximately £92 million was spent on these in 2011/12 and the Legal Aid Agency is currently paying rates of up to £150 per hour for preparation and £500 per day for advocacy.
- Reducing certain legal aid fees paid in civil cases and to experts. These proposals will ensure that fees paid are fair and consistent with those paid for similar work, that they reflect efficiencies of reforms in the justice system and represent value for money.
The consultation can be found here and is open until early June. All BLS members are urged to make their views known.