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Government takes direct control of legal aid as Regan resigns

3 March 2010

The government has announced its intention to take direct control of legal aid by turning the Legal Services Commission into an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice.

Carolyn Regan, chief executive of the LSC, will resign this week and be replaced on an interim basis by Carolyn Downs, deputy permanent secretary at the MoJ.

The announcements follow the publication of a review by Sir Ian Magee, which considered whether, within the LSC, the Criminal Defence Service should be separated from the Community Legal Service (see Solicitors Journal 153/39, 20 October 2009).

In the end, Sir Ian decided that he did not favour a split. However he did suggest, “for further investigation”, the question of whether the LSC should become an executive agency.

Speaking to Solicitors Journal today, legal aid minister Lord Bach said the change in status required new legislation and so would not happen before the election, but his view was that there was “not much” separating the main parties on the issue.

He said abolition was “too harsh a word” to describe what was happening to the LSC.

“The fact that we are moving towards an agency means the relationship has changed,” Lord Bach said.

“We are trying to find the best way of creating a closer relationship between those responsible for the policy and what funds are available and the body responsible for delivery.

“Whatever happens to legal aid, the people who get it in the neck are the ministers.”

Lord Bach said Carolyn Downs, who becomes interim CEO this week, would be based at LSC headquarters, located close to the MoJ.

“We will be bringing legal aid into the ministry as an agency, in the same way as we have the Courts Service and NOMS [the National Offender Management Service],” he said.

“Independent funding decisions will continue to be made quite independently of ministers.”

However Steve Hynes, director of LAG, said: “The LSC is currently a non-departmental public body with its own governance separate from ministerial control. As an executive agency it will be under the direct control of ministers. “This could lead to political interference in decisions on entitlement to legal aid. LAG believes that there will have to be an independent appeals mechanism for the government to comply with the Human Rights Act.

“It is not enough for the government to give assurances about internal procedures to prevent ministers from interfering in decisions. With direct control of the department making the decision they could give the appearance of involvement. “Procedures for granting legal aid need to be above such a suspicion or the justice system risks being undermined.”

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