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Lord Bach reveals latest civil legal aid cuts

9 February 2010

Lord Bach, the legal aid minister, has launched a fresh package of civil legal aid cuts, which the Ministry of Justice hopes will save £6m a year.

Among them is an end to routine access for non-residents living in the UK and British residents living outside the EU.

In private law family cases, people applying for the legal aid will have to notify their opponents, who will be allowed 14 days to produce evidence that the applicant is ineligible.

However, following strong opposition from legal groups, the MoJ has introduced a range of exemptions. Non-residents in the UK will continue to have access to legal aid in immigration, asylum, child abduction, forced marriage and emergency housing cases.

In exceptional cases, the LSC will allow human rights challenges from non-residents against the government.

People who make emergency applications for legal aid in family cases, for example because of domestic violence, will also be exempt from the new measures.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said the original package of cuts could have had a “devastating effect”.

However, he said the introduction of a 14-day period during which a legal aid applications can be challenged could lead to “very difficult tussles”.

He went on: “The other side has a vested interest in preventing the client from getting a certificate. The process could lead to delays and the LSC might not get the results it wants, which is to save cash.”

The MoJ intends to introduce the 14-day period across the civil legal aid scheme, subject to exceptions for cases involving mental health detentions, parents or guardians involved in Children Act proceedings, asylum applications and cases where the client could lose their home.

Hynes said LAG was concerned by the expansion in the work of the LSC’s special cases unit.

Under the proposals, the multi-party action committee and public interest advisory panel will be merged to form a new ‘special controls review panel’.

The panel will consider multi-party actions, ‘borderline’ cases relying on public interest or human rights issues, all appeals to the Supreme Court and cases where costs might exceed £250,000.

“It will be a question of how the new system works in practice,” Hynes said. “It must not be allowed to stifle access to justice.”

Eric Metcalfe, director of human rights policy at JUSTICE, said the MoJ should not use the cuts as an excuse to drop independent assessment of the broader public interest.

“One of our main concerns are cases regarding British involvement in Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan,” he said.

“Anyone subject to British law and control, who is eligible for legal aid and meets the criteria should be entitled to assistance.”

Diane Astin, acting director of the Public Law Project, said she was pleased that the MoJ had withdrawn some of its original proposals, particularly a plan to scrap legal aid for claims against public authorities worth less than £5,000.

She said the MoJ had originally proposed that opponents should be able to question merits as well as eligibility during the 14-day period.

“I would still oppose this plan, because the other side can already make representations once legal aid has been granted,” she said.

However, she said that people on low incomes, but above the threshold for legal aid, had some justification for feeling that their legally-aided opponent was at an unfair advantage.

Launching the new measures, Lord Bach said: “The changes we have announced will ensure that fraudulent applications are detected before public funds are expended on them, and that legal aid is better targeted.”

The measures will be implemented in April 2010.

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