The government’s long-awaited review of its controversial legal aid reforms is unlikely to be finished by the summer as promised, the lord chancellor has warned, as justice campaigners highlighted their frustrations that the review has yet to properly get off the ground.
David Gauke told the Commons justice committee today that the summer recess deadline 'is an ambitious timetable and I think I want to look at whether that is deliverable to be honest'.
The Ministry of Justice is required to look at the operation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act within three to five years of implementation. The act, which cut vast swaths of law from the scope of legal aid, came into force in April 2013.
However, Gauke told the committee: 'It is more important to get this right rather than have a particular timeframe. I think it is likely it will take us longer to do that. I certainly don't want us to slip into next year.'
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said it was 'disappointing that the justice secretary failed to mention legal aid as one of his ministry's priorities', adding that the LASPO review update was 'even more disappointing.The review increasingly looks like it will fall far below expectations'.
Christina Blacklaws, vice-president of the Law Society, said getting the review right should be the priority, but Chancery Lane was 'increasingly concerned the MoJ hasn't even got it underway yet. We hope to hear from the government soon about next steps'.
Meanwhile, across the road from the committee meeting, Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, told the latest meeting of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on legal aid that the government's post-implementation review team has been ready for months. 'Also frustrating is there are so many changes to the team. People who have read the literature, then move on. Expertise that has been developed has to be built up again,' she added.
Karen Buck, Labour MP for Westminster North and chair of the APPG, told the meeting that recent tabloid coverage of legal aid had been 'terribly disruptive about the message of the value of legal aid'. Last weekend the Mirror splashed with the headline 'Bulger Killer given £260k in legal aid' under the kicker 'Fury over joke justice'.
Buck suggested a future APPG meeting could discuss legal aid in the media, with Lord Low of Dalston (Colin Low), a crossbench peer, suggesting asking some media representatives to participate.
Concepts such as access to justice are 'rather abstract', said Low, chair of the Low Commission, an independent commission set up to examine the impact of legal aid cuts and develop an access to justice strategy. He added: 'The way to get the media to engage is through stories, the circumstances of people's lives.' He recalled hearing evidence about a man who turned up to an advice centre with a paper bag containing several demand bills he could not afford to pay. Low said: 'I thought that was a powerful image and has stayed with me. If we can get more images like that - the consequences of denying people justice - into the media that would be a very good step.'