The justice secretary’s order of an ‘immediate review’ of legal aid bodes ill for the way funding decisions will be made once the Ministry of Justice takes the Legal Services Commission in-house.
Chris Grayling announcement followed the Daily Mail’s revelation that £680,000 in legal aid was spent on Abu Hamza’s fight against extradition to the US (where he faces terror charges which he denies). Grayling is troubled by the cost of funding such controversial cases. According to the MoJ he said: ‘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.’
He stopped short of saying that public funding should be available only for people whose causes have popular public support, but it is worrying that, rather than explaining the fundamental importance of legal aid, his statement ordering a review pandered to popular prejudice.
Funding should be based on the interests of justice, not public popularity. Unlike Pontius Pilate, we do not crowd-source decisions. Public money must not be denied in cases where the claimant is unpopular or their case controversial. Legal aid, particularly in human rights cases, plays an important role in scrutiny of the state’s actions and decisions. Denying it will protect the state from that scrutiny.
Next April, the Legal Services Commission, which administers legal aid, will become an executive agency of the MoJ. Its funding decisions will be made by the director of legal aid casework who will be directly responsible to the lord chancellor - Grayling.
His intervention in this case will add to concern at the lack of provisions to protect the independence of civil servants making funding decisions. Ministerial interference in the granting of legal aid, especially in a transparent quest for public opinion, will harm public confidence in the system, and it is that which should be concerning the lord chancellor.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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