Ministry tightens the reins on legal aid

The Bar Council has welcomed the news that the Legal Services Commission (“LSC”) is to become an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (“MoJ”).

The change in status will see the MoJ taking tighter control of the £2.1 billion legal aid budget. A Bill will be introduced to implement the changes as soon as Parliamentary time allows. Carolyn Regan, who has served as the LSC’s Chief Executive for three and a half years, resigned following the announcement, which implements a recommendation of Sir Ian Magee’s review into the delivery of legal aid. Carolyn Downs, an MoJ Civil Servant, has been appointed interim Chief Executive.


Carol Storer, Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said “independence” was an important concern, but added: “There will have to be legislation to effect this, which could take months or a year, and the issue of safeguarding independence will be addressed during that process.

“There are precedents across government, for example, housing benefit administration.” LSC Chair Sir Bill Callaghan said Regan had provided “inspirational leadership”. “Whatever the changes to the organisation, the underlying challenge remains the same – the effective management of legal aid within a fixed budget, while ensuring that the necessary help is available to those who need it most,” he said.
Sir Ian Magee said the LSC had been “given wide but largely undefined powers” when it was first set up, and “much has changed” over those ten years.

His “Review of Legal Aid Delivery and Governance”, commissioned by the MoJ and published in March, was the third major report to criticise the LSC in the last 12 months.  In February, the Public Accounts Committee reported that a lack of clarity about the roles of the LSC and the MoJ was creating “uncertainty” and “duplication”. It found weak financial management and internal controls, and concluded the LSC lacked “strategic direction”.  In October 2009, the National Audit Office qualified the LSC’s accounts due to an estimated £25 million overpayment to solicitors.

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