Ministers Admit more work is needed on family legal aid scheme

GOVERNMENT Ministers have acknowledged that controversial plans to impose fixed fees for legal representation for vulnerable families and children cannot proceed without “further analysis”. Justice Minister Lord Bach has told Parliament that further analysis would be required before it could publish final fee schemes for family legal aid and that more work would be undertaken over the summer to allow for the introduction of the new scheme in April 2010. Recent research by economic consultants Oxera and a report from the House of Commons Justice Committee have provided a stinging critique of the Legal Services Commission’s (‘LSC’) approach to reforming family legal aid, in particular, highlighting the fact that the proposals have been made on “incomplete data, [and] a superficial understanding of the supply of legal services in this area”. The Justice Committee condemned the LSC not only for its “flawed, weak and inflexible” approach but also for its “conclusions first, evidence after” approach to policy-making.

Commenting today, Lucy Theis QC, Chairman of Family Law Bar Association, said:

‘What is so concerning about these proposals is the lack of reliable evidence to support them, in particular regarding their impact on effective access to justice to the most vulnerable families and children. It is a matter of great concern that an increasing number of independent reports make clear that the LSC’s family legal aid plans would hit the most vulnerable hardest, and that they lack any robust evidential base.

Today’s announcement concedes the need for complexity to be recognized in any revised fee structure. While making clear that the Government seems set on continuing to pursue its plans this is the first recognition that there is still some way to go before there is a properly graduated fee scheme that protects the interest of the vulnerable children and families, retains expertise within this important area and has the confidence and support of the practitioner groups.’