Reforms turn legal aid into 'lottery'

TWO senior Law Society figures took the attack on government legal aid reforms to the regions last week with a twin-pronged rebuke during a conference in Liverpool.

Russell Wallman, head of the society's professional policy, and Phillip Sycamore, chair of civil litigation committee, criticised the proposals in separate speeches at the Liverpool Law Society conference on Wednesday.

They called Lord Mackay's Green Paper a crude, unfair plan which was aimed at cutting expenditure rather than providing greater access to the law.

Wallman said: “The Green Paper is about satisfying the Treasury's compulsive desire for complete control over every aspect of public expenditure rather than satisfying the need for a fair and effective system of justice.”

Sycamore said that the plan for regional budgets would “have the effect of turning legal aid into nothing more than a lottery”.

He added: “The climate is one for change but the Government's proposals are not the way forward.”

Their criticisms included concerns that:

– Decisions being made in Whitehall would make the system bureaucratic.

– Regional budgets would mean aid was dependent on where you live.

– Strict cash limits and block contracts for legal aid firms would effectively ration aid rather than target it.

– Price competition for block contracts would mean quality of service may be compromised.

– Plans to award contracts to “quality assured” firms was an unacceptable restriction on client choice.

– A “penalty fares system” to keep less serious cases out of the courts.

– Alternative fund raising measures such as tax concessions on legal expenses.

Sycamore said the Law Society's own proposals for reform would slim down court procedures to cut the total bill by at least £190 million.

He suggested increasing the free income limit by at least 25 per cent, and a flexible upper income limit of eligibility so that expensive cases can be considered – with the applicant contributing if they could afford it. He also suggested time limits imposed on contributions, for example, two years for civil cases.

Cyril Dixon