April 24, 2006: Poor Suffering Most As Legal Aid “Scraped To The Bone”, Say Judges
Poor suffering most as legal aid 'is scraped to the bone' say judges
Clare Dyer, legal editor
Monday April 24, 2006
Hundreds of judges from the court of appeal downwards have accused the government of “emasculating” civil legal aid, threatening access to justice for the poor and vulnerable.
They say ministers have allowed legal aid for criminal, family and asylum cases to swell unchecked, squeezing the funds for helping disadvantaged people with ordinary legal problems such as debt and housing.
They also blame the legal aid authorities for wasting money by funding many “hopeless” attempts to appeal against asylum decisions.
In a strongly-worded contribution to a review of how legal aid services are bought, commissioned by the government from the Labour peer Lord Carter of Coles, the judges say civil legal aid has been “scraped to the bone over the last 10 years”.
The response comes from the judiciary as a whole – from court of appeal down to district judges – apart from the 12 law lords. They point out that the budget for civil aid, which helps poor and vulnerable people with everyday legal problems, has been slashed from 378m in 1995-96 – the year before Labour came to power – to 210m in 2004-05.
In the same period, family legal aid went up from 373m to 452m and asylum aid soared from 24m to 148m.
The judges express fears that the “emasculation” of civil legal aid, coupled with lawyers' pay rates which have been pegged for the last 10 years, will prevent vulnerable people from accessing the legal services they need.
The judges blame both Labour and the previous Tory administration for introducing initiatives in the justice system with no regard for the knock-on effects on the legal aid budget. “There can be no doubt that our civil legal aid system has been brought to its knees in the last 20 years because successive government initiatives in the fields of criminal justice, family justice, and justice for asylum seekers did not take account of the legal aid costs of those initiatives,” they say.
“The budget for civil legal aid has been eroded continuously over the years because of the uncontrolled and swelling demands of the criminal, family and asylum legal aid budgets.”
They argue that legal aid is given too readily in hopeless challenges to official decisions, including asylum cases, because those granting the funding lack expertise in the law.
Oral applications to the appeal court, after the court has refused permission on paper for an appeal against an asylum decision, are usually funded by legal aid, despite a success rate of only 3%, they note.
Administrative court judges, who hear judicial review applications, are “very familiar” with cases in which it is unclear why the legal aid authorities had granted aid for representation in court, the judges say.
The success rate in judicial review cases where a litigant is refused permission to apply on paper and then requests an oral hearing is only 16%, yet many of these cases are funded by legal aid.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said the aim of the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, was to rebalance spending to provide a larger share for civil legal aid.
The legal services commission (LSC), which administers legal aid, said spending on asylum legal aid had fallen dramatically in recent years and was projected to be 110m in 2005-06 and 88m in 2006-07.
An LSC spokesman said: “The reduction is due to a combination of the major reforms introduced by the LSC and the significant reduction in the number of people seeking asylum.
“We do not accept the judiciary's view that legal aid is given too readily in 'hopeless' cases and would welcome further input from them together with details of any cases they considered 'hopeless' so that we may make further inquires.”