End of term report on legal aid: could do better?
I do not think anyone would claim the legal aid scheme is perfect anymore than the NHS is. Far from it, most people would say, but both could be worse. The NHS has much more support from the public than legal aid is ever going to get. The perception of legal aid is it provides money for undeserving causes such as criminals, foreigners and lawyers. However, most people’s attitudes only change when they are seeking funding for themselves or others.
The complexity of legal aid is the product of history. It was run by the Law Society, then the Legal Aid Board, and then franchising came in and who knows what the future will hold. Different governments all had bright ideas on how to save money and complex commercial law has dictated how contracts are won and lost.
If you had to throw away the whole thing and start again from scratch what would you do? I imagine your heart skipped a beat, dear reader, when I put the idea into your head. I don’t mean just change the name and organisation, I mean stop it and start again.
I imagine you would want something that pays a reasonable living to lawyers. I cannot see any reason to be ashamed of that. Other professions have retained a reasonable lifestyle compared to us. Unless the remuneration is adequate there will not be people of good enough ability to do the work.
It is a welfare benefit like any other department of the state, which needs to be properly funded. It cannot be paid for by interest, pro bono, a tax on compensation or the National Lottery. Perhaps we could have a compulsory insurance scheme but really that is a tax like any other.
We would want to ensure specialist work is done by specialist lawyers - surely that is a great success story of legal aid reforms, but not all work is specialist. We would want to allow basic advice to be available to everyone who needs it everywhere. Who should run it? The Law Society was ambivalent about legal aid in the years they ran it. Perhaps we (meaning the profession as a whole) could do better than the agencies that have run it since.
David Pickup is a partner in Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott