Legal Aid Reform

Smaller Communities may be left vulnerable to injustice

The government is tampering with market forces which could leave the rural public and minorities with less chance to access legal aid advice, says the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), a membership body for legal practitioners who provide a vital service to legal aid clients.

In its Press Release issued on Monday (22 March), the Ministry of Justice admits that its Restructuring the Delivery of Criminal Defence Services proposal ‘would see the criminal legal aid market restructured so that there are a smaller number of large contracts’ awarded and acknowledges that ‘would affect a large number of small and medium sized firms’.

Speaking on the Government’s plans, ILEX Law Reform Officer, Gus Ghataura, said: “Legal Aid is currently the cornerstone of our justice system, providing help and assistance for many of the most vulnerable members of our society. This proposal risks damaging access to justice for those who don’t happen to be able to access a large commercial legal firm.”

ILEX believes that this ‘one size fits all’ approach that favours the creation of large legal aid practices which risks the long-term provision of services and threatens the government’s objectives by leaving gaps in criminal legal aid provision.

“This is a risky strategy. Dealing with larger firms may be attractive for the Ministry of Justice in terms of administrative ease, but the proposals could sound the death knell for many small criminal firms that provide a valued service providing legal advice to their local communities, including those living in rural areas and minority groups. This would compound the pressure on a legal aid system that is already in a fragile state.”

ILEX recognises that in a time of finite public resources, but calls on the government to ensure that while the aims of sustainability, quality, cost and efficiency are achieved, the existing supply structure is not damaged irreparably, or access to justice impaired.

“It is important for both market stability and the accessibility by clients for the government to retain a structure that allows mix of firms, small and large, and for those to be geographically widespread” Mr Ghataura concluded.

In announcing the proposals this week, Lord Chancellor Jack Straw observed that the legal aid budget has increased 5.3% a year since 1982/3. However, ILEX notes that Sir Ian Magee’s Final Report On Legal Aid and Governance issued earlier this month found that the cost of criminal legal aid has actually fallen by 12% in real terms over the past five years.

Posted 25.03.10