Bar Council Chairman calls for protection for legal aid at Vienna Conference

Changes to legal aid system in England and Wales are incompatible with rule of law.

SPEAKINGin Vienna at the 38th Annual Conference of European Bar Leaders, the Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Green QC said the latest round of proposed cuts in criminal legal aid in England and Wales, coupled with the absence of a clear strategic vision for the future of legal aid were placing the country’s justice system at risk. Echoing the concerns of the recent report of the Public Accounts Committee, The procurement of legal aid in England and Wales by the Legal Services Commission (HC 322), Nick Green drew attention to the chaotic way in which legal aid policy and administration is being conducted, and the way that this is endangering the rule of law. The Public Accounts Committee criticised the LSC, amongst other things, for failing to get a grip of its financial management, for weak internal controls (leading to its accounts for 2008-09 being qualified) and for threatening the long-term future of the junior criminal Bar and placing the quality of advocacy in the Crown Court at risk. The Committee criticised the LSC for the lack of a clear strategic direction (reflected in its poor management of changes initiated following Lord Carter’s review of legal aid in 2006). Significantly, the Committee found that the LSC’s failings were such that it was not able to demonstrate that its management of the legal aid funds was delivering value for money. The Government is proposing to cut criminal legal aid fees in order to “safeguard” civil legal aid. However, instead of transferring any savings from criminal legal aid to civil legal aid, the total funds for legal aid will be reduced as part of the Government’s plans to cut public expenditure.

On the eve of the Conference, Nick Green QC said:

‘This conference has the rule of law as one of its key themes, something which every democracy has at its centre. However, reform of public funding for the legal aid system in England and Wales has become so chaotic that access to justice is being seriously weakened. The Bar cannot stand by and allow the legal aid system to face further arbitrarycuts. The Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association have worked hard to put forward realistic and practical solutions to the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission in these difficult economic times. But the way in which the most recent consultations on Very High Costs Cases and the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme have been conducted has left us no option but to take the first step towards a judicial review of the legality of their consultations, in the public interest.’