Legal aid by legislation not LCD discretion

Last week, we devoted a large part of The Lawyer to a direct plea to the Government to reconsider its proposals that we, and now it seems many Labour backbenchers believe will prevent many gaining access to justice – ironically, the name of the very Act that is supposed to improve the public's chances of having their cases heard.

We must have touched a nerve in Government because Geoff Hoon, minister of state in the LCD, asked to clarify a few points. As the story on page 9 shows, that clarification consists of assertions that the examples we gave would probably qualify for legal aid subject to the Lord Chancellor's discretionary powers.

This is simply not good enough. If the Government is serious about access to justice then it is not sufficient to have the Lord Chancellor or some quasi quango take over, acting as a gatekeeper to the courts. Discretion will be enshrined in "directions" to be included in the code to establish the Legal Services Commission.

Either people have a right to have their claims heard in a court of law, no matter how poor they are, or they do not. If Hoon is confident that these "directions" will safeguard the equal access principle, then let him work to have them written into the legislation not left as the basis for a non-statutory funding code.