The president of the Law Society has written to justice secretary Ken Clarke calling for a pause in the proposed legal aid reforms.
Linda Lee said the proposals ‘amount to a fundamental reshaping of the legal aid scheme’, removing from scope many areas of law that affect the most vulnerable and depriving an estimated 500,000 of legal aid services each year.
She said: ‘We fear that the haste in which the proposals were drafted has meant that many issues with far-reaching impacts on members of the public and the justice system have not been considered.’
Lee pointed to the recent justice committee report, which said the proposals were in need of ‘substantial further refinement’.
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Lord Chancellor,
The Legal Action Group (LAG) and the Law Society continue to have very serious reservations about the government's proposals for changes to legal aid provision in England and Wales.
We are therefore writing to you formally to request that the government publishes its proposals to reform legal aid as a draft bill to be scrutinised by a special joint committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords or the justice committee and other select committees with an interest in legal aid and access to justice policy.
It is our view that the government's proposals amount to a fundamental reshaping of the legal aid scheme, with many areas of law where services are provided to the most vulnerable being completely removed from scope.
As you are aware, an estimated 500,000 people would lose out on legal aid services annually. We fear that the haste in which the proposals were drafted has meant that many issues with far-reaching impacts on members of the public and the justice system have not been considered.
Moreover, it will be very difficult to translate the policy decisions into legislation without risking creating serious unintended consequences.
We note that the justice committee in its recent report argues that the proposals were in need of "substantial further refinement".
The committee recognises the impact of cost drivers outside the control of the Ministry of Justice on legal aid expenditure, including poor decision-making in other government departments, and the potential knock-on cost of the proposed reductions in the scope of the legal aid scheme to other arms of the state.
LAG calculates that the £49m in legal aid cuts to social welfare law will cost the government £286.2m in expense on other public services. For example, the proposed £7m cut in housing advice will cost the state £16m in other services such as benefit payments.
We also share the justice select committee's concerns over the definition of domestic violence.
It both acts as a perverse incentive to make false claims and prevents women who are victims, but do not wish to pursue a complaint in the courts, from receiving legal aid for assistance with the legal issues surrounding a relationship breakdown.
An important related issue is in regard to the government's proposals to reform the system of litigation costs. In our view, the unintended consequences are profound.
For example, the introduction of complex new costs procedures, such as qualified one-way costs shifting, will make litigation highly unpredictable and because of this it will be much more difficult for lawyers to advise clients on pursuing a valid claim.
There is also a strong argument that reducing the damages of victims of negligence in order to fund cases which have up until now been supported by an already profitable insurance market is unjust. While the proposals are strongly supported by insurers, we do not believe that they are in the wider public interest.
Such a serious review of public policy which engages directly into political debate should also not have been carried out without a proper impact assessment being made on the effects on access to justice and on accident victims.
This policy also needs to be paused, while the potential effects are properly analysed and researched by qualified stakeholders and experts.
As you are aware, such is the interest in the government's plans for the legal aid scheme over 5,000 responses to the consultation were received by the Ministry of Justice. A draft bill would give an opportunity for a thorough, comprehensive consultation on the impact of this important legislation to take place and we would strongly urge you to consider this suggestion.
President, Law Society