Evidence to support the government’s case that England and Wales has ‘one of the most generous’ legal aid schemes in the world emerges from a Europe-wide study today.
A league table in the annual evaluation on the functioning of European judicial systems, published by the Council of Europe, places England and Wales behind only Norway and Northern Ireland in the amount of annual public spending on legal aid allocated per inhabitant.
The annual study is published by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice set up by the Council of Europe in 2002.
The commission - which has no connection with the European Commission - is made up of experts from the council’s 47 member states. The study considers the UK judicial system by its component parts, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.
England and Wales devotes 1.8% of annual public spending to the ‘whole justice system’, below the average of 2.2%. The table is topped by Northern Ireland, whose 5.7% far outstrips the number two, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (4%).
At the foot of the table, Luxembourg spends only 0.6% of its budget on justice. However England and Wales’ share of justice spending devoted to courts, public prosecution services and legal aid, at 51.6%, is only just above the European average of 49.2%.
The table of budget allocated per inhabitant to legal aid (in 2012) is topped by Norway, with 53.55 euros (£42). Northern Ireland comes second with 50.59 euros (£40) and England and Wales third, with 41.55 euros (£33). The average is 8.63 euros (£7) and, because 15 countries spend less than one euro per head, the median figure is 2.3 euros (£2).
More embarrassingly for the government, the report rates the UK among the worst for the proportion of women in the judiciary.
It also notes that budgetary effort devoted to judicial training is ‘very limited’ in England and Wales, along with Bulgaria and Italy.
In a statement, The Law Society stressed that the figures, particularly on legal aid, can be misleading unless they are put in their proper context.
It said: ‘The inquisitorial system used in Europe means that the cost of investigations fall more on judges’ budgets than lawyers and so countries’ systems cannot be compared like for like.
‘The cuts to legal aid in England and Wales are having a detrimental effect to access to justice. Six hundred thousand people have lost access civil legal aid. The government’s proposed criminal legal aid cuts will have a devastating impact on access to justice for the public and on solicitors’ ability to provide legal advice to those in need of it.
‘Nobody is immune from being wrongly accused of a crime, and any of us can be unlucky enough to get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Criminal legal aid is there for people who don’t have the means to defend themselves. We continue to press the government to recognise the impact of its proposals on the criminal justice system, and to think again before irreparable damage results.’