The Law Society has offered to work with the government to increase public understanding and confidence in legal aid after the justice minister announced an ‘immediate examination’ of the system following the Abu Hamza extradition case.
Chris Grayling ordered the review yesterday after it emerged that £680,000 in legal aid had been spent on the Hamza case after his appeal against extradition from the UK failed. The figures were obtained through a freedom of information request by the Daily Mail.
In a statement released by the Ministry of Justice, Grayling said that legal aid is a fundamental part of out legal system – but that ‘resources aren’t limitless’ and should be ‘reserved for cases where there is genuine need’.
He said: ‘The total costs in some cases seem very high and many, myself included, will question whether they provide value for money. I am concerned about public confidence in the legal aid system. I have ordered an immediate examination of aspects of the system that affect its credibility with the public.’
A Law Society spokesman responded: ‘Cases which become notorious are, by their nature, exceptional. While some of these seem particularly costly, the vast majority of legal aid cases involve ordinary people, hard working, vulnerable or unfortunate, who otherwise simply would not be able to afford to pay.’
He stressed that the minister’s desire to spend public money responsibly is entirely proper, but said the government should not lose sight of the ‘constitutional importance’ of legal aid. ‘Legal aid was devised to ensure that nobody is unable to enforce or defend a right for want of the means to do so. That remains a good principle,’ he said.
The spokesman said that the Society has offered to work with the justice secretary to increase public understanding of and confidence.
Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy at pressure group Justice, said that the legal aid system had just undergone ‘one of its most swingeing reviews’ during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
She said that funding decisions are made with the oversight of the Legal Services Commission and that the costs incurred in those areas remaining in scope after the cuts take effect next April will come under intense scrutiny.
Patrick said: ‘Attempts to carve up the limited legal aid pot according to public popularity neglects its important role in ensuring equal access to justice, often for groups and individuals on the margins of society.
‘Human rights cases can involve complex challenges to some of the most treasured government policies; without legal aid, the state could be insulated from effective scrutiny,’ she said.
To preserve the credibility of the wider justice system, Patrick said that funding must be broadly based on the interests of justice, not the characteristics of the claimant.