Doubts overshadow legal aid anniversary

By Alex Stevenson

Concerns remain over the future of legal aid as it celebrates its 60th anniversary today.

An alliance of organisations representing solicitors and lawyers remains locked in conflict with the government over how to provide the service, which offers free legal advice to those unable to afford it for themselves.

Introduced on July 30th 1949, the legal aid scheme – known as the ‘fourth pillar of the welfare state’ – sought to provide people who could not otherwise afford legal assistance and access to justice.

Nowadays legal aid helps over two million people in England and Wales get assistance every year. The Legal Services Commission (LSC), run with a £2 billion budget provided by the Ministry of Justice, claims to be the best-funded legal aid system in the world.

Disquiet about plans for its future continues to blight the system, however. The Law Society, the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association have expressed grave concerns about plans to introduce best value tendering for certain legal aid services.

A consultation paper issued in March this year proposed a limited best value scheme which would see firms bidding for blocks of legal aid work, with the lowest bidder getting the work.

Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, told that the legal aid system was “getting worse, not better because of the government’s cheese-paring”.

“The future is not looking good: we are facing further cuts. There is no sign of any improvements in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Firms will be asked to work until 2013 on 2007/08 rates, having been forced to bid to continue to be allowed to do legal aid work.

“Fixed fees at low levels mean that solicitors are often not paid enough to cover the cost of doing cases, so they are having to cut back on the service they provide to clients; and some lawyers can’t carry on so it is becoming more difficult for clients to get the service they need to make access to justice a reality,” Mr Miller explained.

The government remains upbeat about its proposals, however.

LSC chief executive Carolyn Regan said: “Over the past 60 years, legal aid has provided access to justice for millions of people, who would otherwise not be able to get the help they need.

“Looking ahead, we are taking steps to build a long-term sustainable future for legal aid so that we can ensure quality access to services at the best value for money for taxpayers.

“Legal aid will continue to be a fundamental part of welfare provision for at least the next 60 years.”

Recent changes to legal aid highlighted by the government include the establishment of a community legal helpline, the virtual courts pilot where defendants attend court via videolink, and new IT systems allowing legal aid providers and clients to track their cases in real time.

Lord Willy Bach, the minister for legal aid, said: “The government is committed to ensuring that for the long-term, legal aid expenditure is sustainable, and that those vulnerable people most in need get the right help at a cost that is fair to practitioners and fair to the taxpayer.”