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THE LORD Chancellor has warned he may poach the budgets of departments such as the court service to mop up any overspend in criminal legal aid.
As the Access to Justice Bill progressed through its third reading in the House of Lords, Lord Irvine sought to calm the storm caused by his warning that the only money available for civil legal aid would be that which was left over after meeting criminal legal aid requirements.
Lord Goodhart failed to push through an amendment - backed by legal and consumer groups - seeking to stop the Community Legal Service (CLS) budget from propping up the overspend in the Criminal Defence Service (CDS).
However, he won an important assurance from Lord Irvine (a climbdown from his previous position) when he said there would be no overall legal aid cash budget or cash limit.
There was nothing in the Bill requiring the Government to make good a CDS overspend from the CLS, added Lord Irvine. "Both programmes, however, form part of my departmental spending, along with other services such as the Court Service and the Magistrates Courts.
"My colleagues would expect me to make every effort to offset the overspend by making savings elsewhere, including, but not necessarily from, the CLS."
Legal Action Group spokeswoman Susannah Cox says: "We're still concerned that the civil budget will not be ringfenced and fear that this will leave it vulnerable in future years."
She echoes Lord Goodhart's view that the imminent implementation of the Hum-an Rights Act could lead to a substantial increase in the cost of the Criminal Defence Service.
Lord Irvine also gave an undertaking that he would inform Parliament if any cut in the funding of the CLS was required.