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Justice select committee 'pulls its punches' on legal aid

30 March 2011

The justice select committee has “pulled its punches” in its report on legal aid published today, Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, has said.

The keenly awaited report criticised many aspects of the MoJ’s drastic cuts programme but the committee’s chairman, Sir Alan Beith, said only that the proposals needed “considerable further refinement”.

Hynes said the report questioned the planned cuts in the scope of civil legal aid but did not actually say they should not go ahead.

“The committee says the impact of the cuts should be evaluated but does not say there should be any cuts until this is done,” Hynes said. “It’s a bit weak in that respect.”

Hynes also questioned the committee’s acceptance that there should be big cuts in civil legal aid.

“I don’t think there is a consensus about this,” he said. “The Labour party accepts that cuts have to be made but not in civil legal aid, particularly social welfare.”

However, Hynes praised the committee for suggesting that a ‘polluter pays’ approach should be applied to the Department of Work and Pensions.

The committee suggested that the DWP should be forced to pay a surcharge when poor decision making leads to large numbers of successful appeals.

The justice committee criticised the ‘domestic violence test’ proposed for access to family legal aid, saying it could lead to a “perverse incentive to make false allegations of such violence, or, where such violence has occurred, cause it to feature in disputes before the courts where it might otherwise not have done so”.

Committee members called on the government to abandon the use of domestic violence as a “gateway” to civil legal aid, or at least broaden the definition to include non-physical abuse.

They said they agreed with the president of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall, that mediation “cannot be a panacea” and further work needed to be done on how difficult cases would be dealt with if legal aid was not available.

The committee said cuts to family legal should not in any case be made until the final report of the Norgrove review into family justice was published later this year.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the report “clearly recognises that the Ministry of Justice has provided insufficient evidence to justify proceeding with massive changes to the scope of civil legal aid without having fully considered all the options for reducing costs and preserving crucial areas of advice”.

Linda Lee, president of the Law Society, said the committee shared its “grave concerns about the lack of hard data underpinning the proposals and the lack of reliable forecasting of the potentially devastating effects”.

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Legal Aid Courts & Judiciary