Senior judges savaged the government’s proposals for the reform of legal aid on 23 January when giving evidence to the Commons’ Constitutional Committee.
Sir Mark Potter, president of the Family Division, called the proposals “a betrayal” of Lord Carter’s review, while Sir Anthony Clarke, Master of the Rolls, called for a delay in the implementation of the proposals on solicitors’ fees to give lawyers time to adjust.
The Committee decided to hold an inquiry into the proposed reform last July to consider its impact on the justice system: whether its effect would affect certain types of providers disproportionately, and how the fixed fees proposal would impact on the provision of legal advice.
The judges lent support to lawyers’ contention that the current timetable was unrealistic and would drive legal aid lawyers out of the market. Sir Mark said the reform in civil legal aid cases should be postponed to April 2008. This would allow all the parties involved to monitor how the reform in the criminal legal aid sector has affected the market. Both judges said the reform of criminal legal aid should proceed as proposed by the government.
Former Europe Minister Keith Vaz is one of the committee members who has signed Early Day Motion 537 ‘Legal Aid Reform’, which presses the government to review the proposals. As support for the motion continued to grow, the latest check on numbers by the Law Society showed that over half of the 112 MPs who had signed the motion are Labour backbenchers – a clear indication, said the Society, that the government is losing support.
“This is a wake up call for the government,” said Des Hudson, Law Society chief executive. “[E]ven the government’s own backbenchers are growing restless with the risks being taken on legal aid and access to justice.”
Warning of the risk that lawyers will just pull out of legal aid work, Hudson said: "These proposals are being rushed through without the detailed consideration that they need bearing in mind the risks they pose to access to justice. […] Theoretical eligibility to legal aid is meaningless if there are no lawyers to represent the most vulnerable in society".