The cost of the Government law reforms should not come out of the legal aid bill, Lord Falconer told legal aid lawyers last week at the Legal Action Group’s annual conference.
The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs told delegates: "It’s important that we rigorously cost all policy change within Government so that we can estimate and fund consequential legal aid costs.
"The legal aid budget cannot indefinitely absorb the knock-on effects of changes in the law across Government. There needs to be thought upstream on policy decisions before the costs are made downstream."
He described the Government as "unstinting" in its support of legal aid "both financially and in more innovative ways". Evidence for that claim comprised the "encouragement" of conditional fees, which "unquestionably extended access to justice", the extension of the scope of the Legal Help scheme, the introduction of the Just Ask! website, and the "targeting" of legal aid resources to areas of social exclusion.
However, Lord Falconer went on to argue that that it "scarcely needs to be said that the Government has a clear responsibility to ensure that we’re getting the best possible return for our investment in the legal aid system - value for money, in other words". He pointed out that the budget this year stood at "some £2bn in resource terms". "That’s a big bill, by any standards," he said. "It’s £500m more than in 1997-98, when the Government came to power. Expenditure has increased by 28 per cent, while inflation was only 12 per cent in the same period."