The Ministry of Justice has today published proposals to refocus limited civil and criminal legal aid resources on priority cases.
Proposals in the first part of the paper are the product of joint working between the Legal Services Commission and the Ministry of Justice and suggest a range of changes to the funding rules to ensure legal aid funds are being directed to meritorious cases. Proposals include:
reforming the way that the public interest is considered in deciding whether to grant legal aid by establishing a new committee to include non-lawyers, and creating a ring-fenced budget for these cases;
removing certain low priority cases, such as low value damages claims, from scope for civil funding, where issues can be resolved instead through complaints procedures or ombudsman schemes;
tightening the existing rules for granting legal aid for judicial review, following a significant decline in the number of successful permission applications; and
notifying the other side when civil legal aid is applied for to discourage fraudulent applications from those outside the financial eligibility limits.
Proposals in the second part of the paper have been developed by the Ministry of Justice and are also aimed at focusing resources on priority cases. The first proposal concerns the removal of advice and assistance on prisoner treatment issues from the scope of the Criminal Defence Service. Funding will be available to prisoners with serious concerns about their treatment under the civil scheme, subject to passing the relevant civil funding code criteria. This includes the need to exhaust the prison internal complaints procedure in most cases in advance of seeking legal advice. This proposal builds on the reforms to prison law funding which were published by the Legal Services Commission yesterday.
The second proposal concerns the removal of the delegated powers for solicitors to self-grant legal aid in judicial review cases. This follows the rise in failed judicial review applications, many of which are funded through legal aid. With the exception of housing judicial review, civil and criminal legal aid providers will no longer be able to self-grant emergency representation in judicial review and will need to seek approval in advance from the Legal Services Commission.
The third proposal concerns restricting routine access to the civil legal aid scheme in England and Wales for those who are not residents in the UK. Funding for serious matters such as mental health detention, childcare or child abduction proceedings, domestic violence protection or emergency housing matters would remain available. Funding would also continue for overseas British citizens, European citizens involved in cross- border disputes, and those whose country is a party to a bilateral agreement providing access to legal aid in the UK.
The consultation paper Legal Aid: Refocusing on Priority Cases is available on the Ministry of Justice website at www.justice.gov.uk. Responses are invited by 8 October 2009.