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Labour says crime not social welfare should bear brunt of legal aid cuts

7 February 2011

Former legal aid minister Lord Bach has made it clear that Labour believes that crime and not social welfare law should bear the brunt of the legal aid cuts.

The government is proposing to cut £350m from the civil legal aid budget, while leaving criminal law virtually untouched.

At a conference this morning, Lord Bach said his plans to consolidate criminal legal aid in the hands of a small number of large firms could save £200m by 2015.

He said further savings could come from some aspects of private law family work.

Lord Bach said the coalition government’s proposed cuts would widen the gap between criminal and civil legal aid to a degree that was “perverse” and “completely counterproductive”.

He said the coalition had come forward with “practically no further steps” on very high cost criminal cases, despite the large savings that could be made.

“The present government has decided to do nothing to reform that part of the system in urgent need of reform,” Lord Bach told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.

He said it was “slightly absurd” that the consultation on legal aid cuts preceded the Norgrove report on family justice, but he agreed with the government that cuts could be made to private law family work.

He said cutting social welfare law was “at the heart” of the coalition’s policy.

“This will decimate if not destroy completely civil legal advice in this area in England and Wales,” Lord Bach said.

“The cost to all of us in society of not spending this modest amount is huge, not least in financial terms.”

Lord Bach warned that many CABx would not be able to carry on and the news last week from Birmingham, where five CABx face closing their doors to general advice clients, was “frankly shocking” (see, 4 February 2010).

“Many solicitors’ firms will be tipped over the edge. The law centre movement will be crushed. Many will close down, with disastrous effects on their clients.”

He went on: “They just don’t get it. Their view of legal aid is so limited and old fashioned that they just don’t see the relevance of social welfare law.

“To have picked on social welfare is a serious error for which we will all pay.”

Earlier, justice minister Jonathan Djanolgy said he understood the not-for-profit sector’s concerns about the future, but the issue went well beyond legal aid.

Djanogly said legal aid accounted for only around 15 per cent of the funding of advice centres.

“The key role of CABx is to give general advice, not necessarily legal advice,” he said.

“We support CABx and hope local government will share our view that they play an important part across society.”

In answer to a question from Labour MP Andrew Dismore, Djanogly admitted that the government was most concerned about the impact of the Jackson review on medical negligence cases.

Dismore asked how these “very expensive, front-loaded cases” could be funded without conditional fees or legal aid.

He and other speakers said Lord Justice Jackson believed that legal aid should be retained.

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