MAGISTRATES courts are battling with conflicting government demands to speed up justice on the one hand and administer stricter means tests on the other, justices clerks have claimed.
The Justice's Clerks Society says clerks are working to tighten up their procedures to test legal aid applications following the latest in a procession of critical reports from the National Audit Office on the quality of means testing.
But the association says pressures to cut down on court delays are making life difficult for its members.
"There are mixed messages going out which makes it very difficult," commented Malcolm Marsh, the society's honorary secretary.
The report said a large number of magistrates courts were failing to obtain adequate documentary evidence on the means of legally-aided parties.
It showed that although practice had improved overall, individual court performance varied enormously, with some courts failing to obtain any documentary evidence of parties' means.
The NAO reviewed the means testing arrangements at 20 magistrates courts and examined a total of 1,080 means assessments.
The office found that adequate documentary evidence of entitlement to free legal aid was obtained in only 54 per cent of cases, with no evidence gathered at all in 9 per cent of cases.
The report comes after Sir John Bourn, comptroller and auditor general of the NAO, refused to grant the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is responsible for magistrates courts, an audit certificate for the fifth year running because of fears that the means test was not being properly applied in the magistrates courts.
A spokeswoman for the LCD said it was doing all it could to improve the situation. "We are not complacent and realise that there is much to be done."