The government is unlikely to bring forward its summer 2020 deadlines for completing comprehensive reviews of legal aid eligibility and fees, the lord chancellor has today suggested. Responding to MPs' concerns that the timetable will make it difficult for the Ministry of Justice to get cash from the Treasury following the next spending review, David Gauke said it was important to build a case based on robust evidence.
Gauke was appearing before the House of Commons justice select committee to discuss the ministry's review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and its legal support action plan.
Based on the work that was carried out and the feedback he received, Gauke said the LASPO review, published in February, had been a 'comprehensive, honest process'. He was sympathetic to the case for early intervention, but said the ministry needed to 'build the evidence' to ensure there was a good case for intervening early in terms of improving people's experience of the justice system, achieving the right outcomes, and in a way that was good and fair to the taxpayer.
'In an ideal world, we would have the evidence as we went into the spending review,' he acknowledged.
The ministry has pledged to complete a comprehensive review of the legal aid eligibility regime by summer 2020. Gauke said the timetable was 'realistic and sensible', and that it was necessary to bring data, expertise and evidence from across the government to assess how effectively current means testing arrangements appropriately protect access to justice.
'I think the timetable is the right one. It enables us to bring the evidence altogether and reach a conclusion based on robust evidence. It does [take us out of the spending review]. But clearly in our engagement with the Treasury in terms of working out our spending review assessment, we need to take into account contingencies such as this. It is not unheard of for government departments, when they enter into a spending review, to be able to say "Here's a review we're undertaking, it's not going to complete it in time for a spending review, but Treasury we need to be focused on what the potential risks might be from a public spending point of view", and set out a spending review settlement that takes into account the potential eventualities. The upside and downside risks to budgetary pressures".'
He added: 'We need to make sure we have got a settlement with the Treasury in the next spending review that does not essentially leave us with an undeliverable budget and one where we have an endless cycle of going back to the Treasury seeking reserve claims.'
The ministry has also begun a wider review of criminal legal aid fees, which will be completed by the end of summer 2020. Gauke told the committee: 'In my view, we're not going to return to the previous era in terms of criminal legal aid [and] rates.'