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It was time for a not-so-old idea to be dusted down and given a fresh airing this week. Proposals for a shiny new means test in the Magistrates' Courts were tentatively floated by ministers in what has widely been interpreted as a way to curb the GBP2bn legal aid bill.
For those with poor short-term memories, this will replace the same means test for criminal legal aid that was scrapped three years ago.
The constitutional affairs minister, David Lammy, swore blind that proposals were about more than just cutting legal aid. But few will be convinced. "We want to ensure that the money goes on those who most need it ... so that if people fall on hard times they can rely on legal aid," he told The Times yesterday. "I think the time has come to look very seriously at means testing of criminal defendants to see if they are entitled to legal aid. It comes back to my broader vision of what legal aid is about: helping those who fall on hard times, or the socially excluded." The paper reported that the measure, which would be included in the forthcoming draft criminal defence bill, could be set so low as to exclude families with an income of more than GBP27,500.
So far, there has been much righteous indignation about the re-introduction of "a stealth tax on the middle-classes" in the press. The all powerful pro-motoring lobby was particularly incensed. It was reported that some 593,000 people went through the courts charged with motoring offences, the majority in magistrates' courts. The RAC warned that the one in three motorists who are eventually found not guilty of offences might not be able to afford going to court. "This is not about targeting motorists - anyone found not guilty of a charge has their legal fees repaid anyway," David Lammy said.
Criminal defence practitioners might have more practical objections. When New Labour pulled the plug on the test the first time around, many broke the habit of a life time and applauded the good sense of ministers. In short, it was widely perceived that the means test was more hassle than it was worth. The bureaucracy of chasing payslips and checking on unemployment benefit hardly made the savings worthwhile. That said, the new means test is hardly likely to deliver the goods that, one imagines, the government expects it will do.