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Jackson and legal aid consultations to be launched at same time

8 November 2010

The government’s plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m and to implement parts of Jackson LJ’s report on civil costs will be launched together, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly has said. Publication is expected later this month.

Djanogly said a separate review of civil justice procedure would begin in the spring.

Speaking at a Westminster legal policy forum on the future of legal aid this morning, Djanogly said that, given the “dire state of the public finances”, the government’s priority was to protect the most vulnerable.

“It will remain one of the most expensive schemes in the world even after the reforms,” he said.

The justice minister said the piecemeal reforms of recent years had led to “uncertainty and instability” and “created a new bureaucracy for providers and clients”.

He said that several consultation exercises on very high cost criminal cases (VHCCs) had produced a system which still failed to “incentivise efficiency” as it should do.

Djanogly said he believed there would be a “compelling case” for legal aid reform, even without the economic crisis.

“The current scheme is too expensive and complicated and bears little resemblance to the one set up in 1949,” he said.

“Too often in modern society people are too willing to hand over to the state their personal problems. Courts should only be used where there is no other way.”

Djanogly said he was a strong supporter of mediation in family cases. He added that it was not only legal aid lawyers who had been having a hard time recently, and that many firms had been restructuring and small firms closing because they could not afford indemnity insurance.

Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the LSC, said the legal aid reforms would create “considerable potential for disagreement” and unless there was a “collegiate and respectful” approach, she predicted further legal disputes.

Downs predicted that, mainly because of incorrect claims from practitioners, the LSC’s accounts would be qualified by the National Audit Office for a further year.

She said that the amount lost by the LSC through wrong payments, which had been estimated by one Conservative MP on the public accounts committee at £24m this year, would rise next year.

Legal aid providers were responsible for two thirds of errors, according to Downs, with the LSC responsible for only nine per cent.

“I will be called back to the committee, and I hope I can report positively and that matters of fraud and incompetence will no longer be a feature of the discussions,” she added.

In a separate development, Mr Justice Cranston last week refused an injunction by a group of firms challenging the tendering process for mental health legal aid contracts.

The injunction would have stopped the LSC from issuing the new contracts on 15 November next week. Public Interest Lawyers and RMNJ were represented by Bindmans, and supported by other leading firms such as Duncan Lewis, Bhatt Murphy and Steel & Shamash.

The claimants were granted a protective costs order, limiting their liability to £100,000.

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Procedures Local government