Former justice minister Lord McNally, who helped steer controversial legal aid reforms through the House of Lords, has pleaded with lawyers to stop ‘bandying about "access to justice"’, describing the argument as ‘quite fraudulent’.

The Liberal Democrat peer was speaking from the floor at a legal aid event after hearing his former coalition colleague Shailesh Vara defend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). 

McNally (pictured) told the event organised by thinktank Politeia: ‘A plea to all the lawyers – those coming up and those already there. You have got to accept that bandying about access to justice, it’s really quite fraudulent. To govern is to choose. Is £1.6bn access to justice? Or is it £2.4bn?’

McNally said he wanted to see a review of LASPO ‘because I want to see where the problems are’.

But, he added: ‘The legal profession itself has got to look at itself and see how it can contribute in an unprotected department… Seeing lawyers outside the Ministry of Justice looking like 1970s trade [unionists] does not help the status of the profession or find a solution.’

Explaining his comments to the Gazette after the event, McNally said the idea that, since Magna Carta, everyone has had access to justice in terms of having resources to go to court is ‘simply not true’.

He said: ‘What’s fraudulent is these things like we must preserve access to justice as though that was something that was available once and is no longer there.

‘There was access to justice before 1948 [when the legal aid scheme was founded] but there wasn’t taxpayer money to go to court. There is still access to justice. We need to get some consensus about how much we spend on legal aid.’

Seeing lawyers outside the Ministry of Justice looking like 1970s trade [unionists] does not help the status of the profession or find a solution

Calling for post-legislative scrutiny, McNally recommended that a joint committee of both houses of parliament be set up, which would hold public hearings into the act.

‘A joint committee would have the public confidence – a range of experts to do a really good job of this,’ McNally told the Gazette. ‘That would be the best way ahead. Whether they choose to do it that way… .’

The government pledged to review LASPO within three to five years after the act was implemented.

Vara, who left his post at the ministry in July, told the event he did not think it was unreasonable to ask for a review, ‘but I do think, however, it is important that people give the act some time to bed in, so that the review at the end of the day is a meaningful one to see if things really are working’.

Repeating the government’s statement that the legal aid system in England and Wales is one of the most generous in the world, Vara said taking tough decisions about legal aid is not easy. ‘People have got to remember there is not a bottomless pit from which we can draw funds,’ he added.

‘We need a balance. A system that’s for the people who need legal advice. A system that’s for the lawyers that provide legal advice. A system that’s for the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it all.’

Vara said he personally did not have a problem with the government’s controversial residence test for civil legal aid eligibility. ‘It’s important to remember who actually pays for legal aid. It’s the British taxpayer,’ he said.

‘I take the view that it’s perfectly reasonable for the public who pay for the legal aid budget to expect people who are going to be recipients to have a connection to this country.’