Commons committee slams legal aid tests

The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has criticised the lack of judicial accountability for criminal legal aid means testing, saying that magistrates' courts have no incentive to get means assessments right.

Taking evidence from Sir Thomas Legg, permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department last week, the committee expressed concern at the National Audit Office's refusal to grant the LCD an audit certificate for criminal legal aid for the fifth year in succession, because of fears that the means test was not being properly applied in the magistrates' courts.

The committee chair, Robert Sheldon, commented: “Is it not inevitable that you are going to have this problem unless there is some sort of control over their [magistrates' courts] expenditure in those matters?”

Committee member Michael Shersby said this was an example of the judiciary being “totally unaccountable to anyone” for £550m.

“I am simply concerned that here we are on the sixth occasion with really not very much being done by the justices clerks to remedy the difficulties to which we have brought attention on many occasions,” Shersby said.

Legg defended the justices clerks, saying there had been a change of culture within magistrates' courts and that there had been significant improvements made since the NAO report last August.

But he admitted that this was “undoubtedly one factor” in the Lord Chancellor's decision to transfer responsibility for means testing to the Legal Aid Board, which he estimated would happen in the financial year 2000-2001.

Legg added that the LCD would be publishing comprehensive guidance with regard to means testing for magistrates' courts within the next couple of months.