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LSC chairman calls for independent legal aid appeal tribunal

10 October 2011

Sir Bill Callaghan, chairman of the LSC, has called for an independent tribunal to hear decisions over whether people should be granted legal aid.

Speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference in Birmingham at the weekend, Sir Bill said he was concerned that the legal aid bill, currently going through its committee stage, did not have any provisions to protect civil servants making difficult decisions on entitlement to legal aid from political interference.

Sir Bill is understood to be the first person at the LSC to openly voice his fears about independence, though concerns were expressed in the commission’s response to the government’s green paper.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said: “LAG believes Sir Bill is right – an independent tribunal system to appeal decisions on entitlement to legal aid will be essential if the government goes ahead with its plan to take direct control of the administration of legal aid.

“What matters is that both in practice and appearance there is no suggestion of political interference in granting legal aid as the credibility of the justice system is at stake.

“In LAG’s view, whether officials believe an individual secretary of state might or might not decide to try and prevent legal aid in a politically sensitive or otherwise controversial case is not the point.”

Giving judgment at the High Court earlier this year in the Evans case, Lord Justice Laws described how lobbying of former justice minister Lord Bach by the Ministry of Defence preceded a change in the LSC’s funding code (see solicitorsjournal.com, 16 May 2011).

The new code restricted legal aid in judicial review cases to people who would gain a “direct benefit” from the result of the case.

The legal aid bill continues its committee stage in the Commons tomorrow, with the debate moving from legal aid to sentencing.

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Legal Aid