The criminal justice system is in danger of becoming unfair and society’s most vulnerable will not be able to access justice unless the government urgently reforms legal aid, an influential group has warned in a hard-hitting report published today.
After conducting an extensive inquiry on the future of legal aid, the House of Commons justice select committee revealed its detailed findings, conclusions and recommendations in an 82-page report that will undoubtedly be read closely by the judge-led team currently reviewing criminal legal aid, and government officials reviewing the means test and civil legal aid sustainability.
Without significant reform, the committee warns that there will be a shortage of qualified criminal legal aid lawyers to defend suspects, which ‘risks a shift in the balance between prosecution and defence that could compromise the fairness of the criminal justice system’.
Recommendations for the criminal sector include linking legal aid fees to Crown Prosecution Service rates and reforming the fee structure to reflect the complexity of defence work.
The committee believes sustainability issues for civil legal aid providers are ‘sufficiently serious’ to justify overhauling the system. The government is currently conducting an internal review on sustainability, but the committee says an independent review is needed to acquire the evidence base needed for far-reaching changes.
Other recommendations for the civil sector include replicating the housing possession duty scheme for areas heavily populated with litigants in person. The committee also supports Law Society head of justice Richard Miller’s suggestion to empower judges to make a direction for legal representation that would be binding on the Legal Aid Agency to fund.
Notable criticisms include the Ministry of Justice's approach to data. ‘We remain concerned that the inability to produce high-quality data on the impact of legal advice on access to justice means that the chances of the Treasury granting additional funding for legal advice and representation are slim,' the committee says.
Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chair of the committee, said: ‘In the last 20 years, efforts to reduce the cost of the legal aid bill have hollowed out key parts of the justice system. Fixed fees are failing to cover the cost of complex cases, the number of people receiving legal aid is falling and legal aid firms are struggling to keep going. Careers specialising in legal aid are becoming less attractive and legal professionals are moving to the CPS or private practice instead. This puts the fairness of the justice system at risk.
'The legal aid system is there to ensure that everyone has access to justice. If the most vulnerable in society are being left to navigate the justice system on their own, then fairness is lost and the system has failed.’