Concerns about the legal aid system raised during the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted an influential group of MPs led by the Conservatives' Sir Bob Neill to begin a fresh inquiry.
The Commons justice select committee says it has heard about difficulty getting legal aid assistance in some parts of the country and from lawyers about the financial problems raised by current fees and reduced work.
Announcing the inquiry today, the committee wants evidence on the role of the Legal Aid Agency, recruitment and retention problems, the impact of the court reform programme as well as Covid-19 on delivering legal aid services, the challenges for legal aid over the next decade, what reforms are needed, and what lessons can be learned from elsewhere.
Written evidence must be submitted by 19 October.
Today’s inquiry is not the first time the committee has looked into legal aid. Its 2015 report on civil legal aid under part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act concluded that the Ministry of Justice had failed in three of its four objectives for LASPO. ‘It has not discouraged unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense because the courts and tribunals are having to meet the costs of a significant rise in litigants in person and a corresponding fall in mediation; it has failed to target legal aid at those who need it most because it has failed to properly implement the exceptional cases funding scheme; and it has failed to prove that it has delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer because it has no idea at all of the knock-on costs of the legal aid changes to the public purse,’ the report said.
Four years later, the Ministry of Justice admitted in its own post-implementation review of LASPO that the changes made to legal aid under LASPO were ‘partially successfully’ in meeting its four objectives.
The committee’s 2018 report on criminal legal aid concluded that there was ‘compelling evidence’ of the fragility of the criminal bar and criminal defence solicitors’ firms placing the common law right to legal advice, together with a right to legal representation for an accused person, at risk.
The Ministry of Justice, which began reviewing criminal legal aid fee schemes last year, recently announced a £51m package of accelerated measures. The lord chancellor is expected to shortly announce further details of an independent review of the criminal legal aid system in its entirely, which will consider working practices and market incentives.