Bar attacks legal aid waste

A HEAD-ON assault on the wastefulness of the legal aid system is vital if the Government's plans for a complete overhaul of legal aid are to be averted, says the Bar Council.

The co-ordinator of the Bar's response to the legal aid reform plans, Jonathan Hirst QC, has defended the tactics in its response to Lord Mackay's Green Paper. The Bar's response is highly critical of the operation of the current merits test. It says public money is being spent on "far too many cases that lack sufficient merit" while "large sums of money" are wasted on unsuccessful multi-party actions.

"The prodigious growth in expenditure in legal aid over recent years makes it essential, if we are to head off criticisms of the current system, for us to make sure that money is spent wisely and not wasted," said Hirst.

His colleague, Peter Birts QC, chair of the legal aid and fees committee, stressed the dangers of the government plan for block contracts and said the Bar's informed criticism of the current system would add weight to its response. "What we say is listened to by the Lord Chancellor's Department. We have experience of how these things work."

A key Bar Council proposal for reform of the current system is to reconsider the test "so it brings about a more precise assessment of the prospects of success and better informed decision-making by the board."

Legal aid should not generally be granted unless the applicant has a strong case and a reversal of the burden of proof in the second leg of the test requiring "the applicant to satisfy the board that the grant of representation is reasonable".

The document acknowledges the existence of opposition among barristers to a change. "Debate in the council shows there is a real fear that a tightening of the test may deny access to justice to those who are deserving of public help and undermine the legal aid system."