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LEGAL groups have responded angrily to revelations that the Lord Chancellor intends to cap the whole legal aid system and provide civil legal aid only if there is cash left over after criminal needs are met.
Criminal legal aid must be demand-led to comply with the human rights obligations.
The Law Society and the Legal Action Group claim the Access to Justice Bill implies criminal and civil legal aid funds will be separated.
But, as the Bill proceeds through the House of Lords committee stage, Lord Irvine stresses there would be one, capped legal aid budget: "I operate within a controlled budget. The truth is that the only money that is left for civil legal aid is what is left over out of that budget, after the requirements of criminal legal aid have been met."
Legal Action Group policy director Vicki Chapman, says: "People have been under a false impression. Criminal aid will be demand-led, and the thought that it could eat into the civil budget is of grave concern."
The Law Society's head of legal aid policy, Karen Mackay, comments: "The worry is that civil legal aid will become the poor relation." She says civil legal aid will become dependent on factors such as the prosecution policy and policing methods, or on whether more people are going through the criminal courts.
She says it is "wholly unreasonable" and "unprecedented" that a demand-led budget should impact on a cash-limited budget.
A Lord Chancellor's Department spokesman says there is a limited budget for legal aid overall. The "inescapable demands" of criminal legal aid will be catered for, he says, as will "essential areas of expenditure" such as domestic violence, with what is left being spent on other items.
"Obviously, criminal legal aid will take a huge chunk of the legal aid budget, but the Government has all sorts of measures which are designed to ensure that the money available goes as far as it can, and that it is dir ected at areas of greatest priority."
The Law Society has drawn up an amendment to the Bill - shortly to enter its Lords report stage - aimed at ensuring spending on civil aid will not be influenced by spending on criminal work.