The Ministry of Justice has offered to provide greater flexibility over the scope of civil legal aid despite the Court of Appeal ruling that its merits regulations were lawful.
Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald (pictured) told MPs yesterday that the draft Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Amendment Regulations 2016 will broaden legal aid availability, enabling funding for certain cases that have a 45%-50% prospect of success.
In most instances, the case must be of overwhelming importance to the individual or of significant wider public interest, Heald told the delegated legislation committee.
In June the Legal Aid Agency announced that legal aid would no longer be made available for cases with poor or borderline prospects of success that may have received funding, following the Court of Appeal’s ruling the previous month.
Heald explained that there have always been certain exceptions to the 50% threshold where an assessment of success prospects applies.
’It is for those reasons that [former justice minister Shailesh Vara] decided that the government should look at providing some flexibility,’ he added.
’We all agree that deciding where the borderline cases fall is not an easy exercise, but we have tried to go beyond the Court of Appeal judgment in order to give more flexibility.’
Legal aid will be available in borderline and marginal cases concerning domestic violence without the necessity of meeting additional criteria. It will also be available where the substance of the case relates to a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Committee member and Labour MP Christina Rees said the opposition welcomed the reinclusion of some borderline cases, though she stressed that Labour remains concerned that the government’s legal aid reforms went too far in restricting civil legal aid availability.
She also asked the justice minister to do ‘one very simple thing’ and confirm when a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) would be conducted.
Amnesty International conducted its own nine-month review of the LASPO reforms, highlighting casualties of the legal aid cuts in a report published last week.
However, Heald was ‘not tempted’ to announce a date.
He said: 'It is true that it was said at the time that LASPO would be reviewed after three years and before five years had elapsed. I can confirm that that is what we intend; we have not yet announced the date of that review, and I am not tempted to do so today.
’But we do intend it and I hope that on that basis the committee will support the regulations.’