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Legal Aid

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

It is 10 years since the Legal Services Commission (LSC) was established under the Access to Justice Act 1999. In that time there has been considerable change in the way that legal aid has been delivered, with a strong focus on ensuring that the people who need help most—the vulnerable in our society—have access to justice.

Legal aid expenditure amounts to £2.1 billion a year. This is comparably one of the most generous schemes in the world. Costs per head of population run at £38 per head1 compared with £30 in Scotland, £36 in Northern Ireland and the following in comparable common law countries: £8 in the Republic of Ireland, £5 in Canada, £8 in New Zealand and £9 in Australia. In the current climate, it is even more important that this public money is managed efficiently and effectively. We have worked with the LSC to take necessary action to protect public funds and focus them on helping those in need.

One of the first steps is to conduct a review of legal aid and to consider ways in which the delivery of legal aid services might be improved. The Access to Justice Act (section 2) envisaged that the Government may eventually want to separate the Community Legal Service (CLS) and the Criminal Defence Service (CDS) to ensure that CLS resources are not swallowed up by the CDS and that the latter plays its full part in delivering an efficient and effective criminal justice system.

I have invited Sir Ian Magee to conduct a review. The terms of reference of the review are as follows:

To review the existing delivery and governance arrangements of the legal aid system, and make recommendations that:

explore the separation of the CDS and CLS and options for doing so effectively and efficiently should that be the recommended way forward;

provide for effective and transparent financial management of both funds and their administration;

provide for effective ministerial accountability and policy direction in respect of both the CDS and CLS, while continuing to ensure that every application to the CLS and CDS funds are decided fairly, within the criteria, at arms length from Government;

identify appropriate delivery models for both the CDS and CLS and their relationship with the Ministry.

In addition to this review, the Ministry of Justice and the LSC are reviewing the current financial and governance frameworks to ensure that where there are any potential opportunities for immediate improvement, these are taken forward without delay.

1 Costs per head for “legal aid” are shown as much lower in most mainland European systems but their costs are not comparable with common law countries because the systems are so different and many costs attributed to legal aid in common law jurisdictions are subsumed within the total costs of the judicial systems in mainland Europe—see European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice: European Judicial Systems.