Legal Aid Reforms

29 June 2011

MPs need to ‘think twice’ over short-sighted legal reforms

Scales of JusticeThe Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) has issued a briefing note to all MPs highlighting how damaging the proposed legal reforms will be if they are allowed to go ahead.

Chief Executive of ILEX, Diane Burleigh said: “MPs have a genuine opportunity to make a decision that is sensible and right for the taxpayer. We accept that savings must be made, but these proposals go too far and will affect too many vulnerable people.

“The Legal Aid budget has been frozen in cash terms since 2004, whereas the volume of cases has soared. It accounts for less than one third of one percent of public expenditure, or one third of the annual increase in the health service budget. Cutting it further will not save the tax payer money; it will just displace problems and costs elsewhere.”

The ILEX briefing note, issued to MPs ahead of the 2nd reading of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill tomorrow (Wednesday 29 June), warns of:

  • Thousands of vulnerable people being denied access to vital legal support, especially women and children, with only the poorest of the poor being eligible for legal aid.
  • Undermining the right to free legal advice following arrest, as individuals will only be eligible for advice if the Government decides it is in the interests of justice. This also presents an administrative nightmare.
  • Fewer legal aid lawyers will mean more inexperienced ‘litigants in person’ clogging up the court system creating more cost in the long run.
  • More suppliers will abandon legal aid work. Tax payers will no longer have access to justice. The market will contract further.
  • Numerous lower paid Legal Aid lawyers will lose their jobs, as the people they aim to help won’t have access to funding.

As well as the decision to cut legal aid provisions, ILEX is concerned over the reforms proposed to Personal Injury (PI) claims and has also asked MPs to consider the following impacts:

  • The Bill will prevent claimants from pursuing legitimate claims due to recovery of costs being uncertain. Government predicts 50,000 less claims will be brought once these changes are in place, yet studies show that only one third of legitimate claims are actually pursued by a claimant.
  • The proposals are an unnecessary reaction to a perceived ‘compensation culture’ which all studies have shown does not exist.
  • A high proportion of claimants will be worse off if they do pursue a claim, by losing up to 25% of their damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenity. For extremely serious injuries, this has implications for the NHS, with additional costs being incurred to care for the claimant.
  • The changes will result in a reduction in the availability and affordability of After the Event (ATE) products, which will still be required for non personal injury matters, as well as some PI matters.

Diane concludes: “The perception is that all lawyers are Fat Cat lawyers getting wealthy on Legal Aid and ambulance-chasing Personal Injury cases. This is incorrect. ILEX members predominantly work in small local firms embedded in the community, helping those who are most vulnerable secure access to their children following divorce, or access to funds to adapt their homes when they suffer a life-changing accident. It is vital for this country that we protect access to our legal system for such people. Justice must not just be the preserve of the rich.“