Wealthy defendants in criminal cases may be allowed to fund their defences with money released from seized assets, the new legal aid minister Lord McNally said today.

McNally told the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group annual conference that Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, had asked him to look in to potential savings from such releases when he was given his new ministerial responsibilities. Currently even millionaire defendants may be eligible for legal aid as a result of their assets being seized, but the Treasury has always resisted releasing money to fund legal expenses.

The proposal was one of several money saving measures suggested by the Law Society during the passage of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, but was rejected by the government.

In his first speech on legal aid since the reshuffle, McNally pledged to listen and engage with practitioners and representative bodies during the implementation of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act.

He said the passage of the bill ‘was bruising for everyone concerned, but I hope, whatever the disagreements of the past, we can all agree that the priority now is to look to the future. That means taking through the changes in train in a way which makes the most of the reformed system’.

McNally highlighted three areas he is keen to progress on – improving the administration of legal aid; the introduction of price competition; and greater use of alternatives to resolving disputes in court.

Criminal legal aid, he said, represents a significant proportion of the Ministry of Justice’s annual expenditure – £1.1bn out of £8.7bn last year. He said the government needed to ensure its long-term sustainability and still planned to introduce a consultation on price competition in 2013. ‘I’m not starry eyed about price competition but I do believe that it will make a real contribution to achieving this,’ he said.

McNally said he recognises the anxiety that such a ‘systemic change’ to procurement will cause to providers and sought to reassure delegates that the government will listen to practitioners.

McNally said that he would give it his ‘best shot’ to ensure that legal aid was most appropriately, saying that the ‘buck stops’ with him over how it works out.

Law Society deputy vice president Andrew Caplen voiced some of the concerns that the Society will raise with the implementation of LASPO, particularly the introduction of capital means testing, which he said will mean that pensioners who own their own homes will be ineligible for legal aid.

He highlighted the Society’s legal aid project, which is working with practitioners to find innovative ways for firms to cut their costs, exploring the use of computer apps and other new technologies for providing advice to clients; sharing back-office functions, and leasing arrangements with IT firms to save on capital expenditure.

Director of the Legal Action Group Steve Hynes argued that the profession should still campaign for changes to LASPO. ‘The government gives the impression that legal aid and LASPO is done and dusted and that they won’t re-open the debate, but we shouldn’t stop talking about access to justice’ he said.

Hynes described LASPO as an ‘obscene access to justice experiment’ into what happens if you take the lawyers out of the system. ‘We need to keep the argument going that LASPO is not enough and needs amending,’ he urged. Responding, McNally said that ‘re-running the LASPO debate will be taking people down a cul-de-sac’.

He accepted that the act was not perfect, but warned: ‘When you argue that the first solution is to fund access to a lawyer, you will lose the argument because there isn’t the political will to do that.’

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