Update on All-Party Group on Legal Aid
Eleanor Sanders, project worker to the APG on Legal Aid, writes:
The All-Party Group (APG) on Legal Aid held its latest meeting on 15 January 2014. Shailesh Vara MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice and minister for the courts and legal aid, addressed the meeting on the subject of the government’s ongoing programme of legal aid reforms. His key message was that further changes were inevitable: there was not a ‘no-change’ option. Overall, expenditure on legal aid had to be reduced by one-third by the end of 2017. The minister claimed that this would still leave England and Wales with one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world despite criticisms of the methods the government had used to make this comparison.
Statistics and the legal aid debate
A key topic of the meeting was the government’s use of statistics in the debate over legal aid. Shailesh Vara quoted government figures claiming that the average gross yearly pay received by legal aid barristers was £84,000; however, the minister acknowledged that this figure had been reached only by excluding those earning £10,000 a year or less. Lord Carlile QC, a Liberal Democrat peer, and Nigel Lithman QC, who is chairperson of the Criminal Bar Association, criticised the government for selectively using ‘alarmist’ statistics to suggest that the legal aid budget was unsustainably high. Moreover, Nicholas Lavender QC, chairperson of the Bar Council, noted the strength of feeling that had been displayed at recent protests over cuts in fees: he feared that successive cuts would drive away talented individuals from the Criminal Bar (see above). Shailesh Vara expressed a desire to meet with Nicholas Lavender and to consider representations from the Bar. The minister admitted that falling rates of prosecutions meant that there were in fact fewer criminal cases being dealt with in the legal aid system.
A number of other topics were also raised. Steve Hynes, LAG’s director, noted that the Low Commission report on the future of advice and legal support had just been published. The report contained several suggestions: for example, it explained that under the current system, those facing repossession of their homes could not receive legal aid to get advice on housing benefit, which was highly impractical and a false economy. The minister acknowledged that he had not yet had time to read the report, but he intended to do so and would be happy to meet with members of the Low Commission.
Concerns were raised about the current evidential requirements for proving domestic violence and the small number of exceptional cases that were receiving funding. Again, the minister declared his intention to meet with stakeholders.