Plans to reduce the cost of legal aid.

30 April 2013

Worthingtons Solicitors look at steps taken to save millions of pounds in legal aid and consider Government plans to make further reductions.

Plans to reduce the cost of legal aid have long been on the agenda throughout the UK.

In England and Wales the Government aims to save £350 mn of the £2 bn legal aid budget by removing legal aid for a range of civil cases including those involving social welfare debt, employment, family problems, clinical negligence, divorce and housing problems.  In England and Wales a consultation paper on plans to cut case costs is to be published later this month.This will include plans for introducing price competition in the criminal legal aid market.

Justice Secretary Chris Greyling has announced that tendering for contracts would be opened in autumn 2013 and the first contracts would "go live" in autumn 2014. Commenting on these proposals to introduce price competition in the legal market, Chairman of the Bar Council in England and Wales, Maura McGowan QC has said "It assures none of the safeguards and qualities which we must expect from our justice system."

As of 2nd April 2013 Legal Aid for divorce has been withdrawn in England and Wales in all cases except where domestic violence can be proved.  It has also been announced that in a bid to recoup legal aid costs, as of July 2013 powers will be introduced to allow the cars of defendants to be seized and, if convicted, sold to offset legal costs.

New measures have also been announced to clamp down on criminals hiding their assets in order to qualify for legal aid, under the "Crown Court means-testing scheme".  Criminals may be made to pay the entire costs of their defence should they refuse to take part in means testing.

In Northern Ireland the Department of Justice has outlined its proposals to save millions of pounds.  In December 2011 the Justice Minister David Ford announced that the number of barristers involved in civil legal aid cases would be reduced. This was the first stage of plans to reduce the legal aid bill.  Other measures announced were to include lower payments for civil legal aid work. The new legal aid fees for criminal cases are said to save the public purse £20 mn per year.

In March of this year Mr Ford announced proposals to reform financial eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid claiming his plans could save £3.5 mn annually.  He has stated “. . . we must have adequate financial eligibility assessment procedures in place to ensure that those who can afford to pay for their own representation do so and those who cannot have considered the financial implications of proceeding in much the same way as a privately paying client.”

Public consultation on the ‘Reform of Financial Eligibility for Civil and Criminal Legal Aid’ consultation document closes on 21 June 2013.

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