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Legal aid facing a future of further cuts

15 June 2010

Jonathan Djanogly, the new legal aid and civil justice minister, has confirmed that the criminal legal aid cuts announced by his predecessor Lord Bach earlier this year will go ahead.

Djanogly, a former partner at SJ Berwin, warned of more cuts to come for legal aid which he said could not be “ring-fenced”.

“Since legal aid forms 25 per cent of the Ministry of Justice budget, if there are costs savings to be made, legal aid will form part of it,” he told journalists at a briefing last week.

Lord Bach made it clear that the criminal legal aid cuts would mean a large number of small and medium-sized firms losing their contracts. Tuckers, the biggest criminal legal aid firm, has estimated that the number could be cut from 2,500 to only 400.

The coalition has committed itself to a legal aid review this summer, but Djanogly said this would be more a case of assessing existing reviews and “injecting some political leadership”.

The minister said the government would consider the range of alternative funding systems for legal aid proposed by former shadow justice secretary, now Attorney General, Dominic Grieve and his deputy minister Henry Bellingham.

Grieve highlighted the French ‘Caisse Des Reglements Pecunaires des Avocats’ (CARPA) under which all client funds held by lawyers go into a single account, which is underwritten by the government.

Djanogly said other ideas that would be considered included the Australian use of client money, the German use of before-the-event insurance, the ‘polluter pays’ principle and how to deliver legal aid in a “coherent package”.

He said the arrival of ABS firms could result in savings to the legal aid budget, but only in the “medium to long term”.

Djanogly said media reports that the ABS project could be shelved by the new government were wrong, although he said he would listen to the Law Society and the Bar Council over the timing.

The minister said he had, in opposition, tabled the amendments to the Legal Services Act protecting access to justice.

He said that if, in future, there were fewer legal aid providers, the government would look at whether small firms in the rural areas or BME firms in the city centres could act “as sub-contractors to the bigger firms”.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, questioned whether the government could save more than £100m by dealing with a smaller number of criminal legal aid suppliers.

“You can cut the number of firms, but you can’t really cut the number of fee earners,” he said.

Hynes said the legal aid review was part of the coalition agreement and needed more than an internal exercise unless the agreement was being renegotiated.

“Political leadership sometimes means giving messages to the Treasury which it does not like and which successive Lord Chancellors have failed to do.”

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said it was “important in any such review to ensure that access to justice is not hindered by cuts to an already shrinking legal aid budget”.

He went on: “Under the previous government a large number of new crimes were created, and yet the criminal justice budget did not reflect that increase. The system inevitably struggles under such strain. The society will provide valuable input in the review of the overall costs of the administration of criminal justice.”

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Legal Aid Discrimination Children Local government