MPs set to tackle LCD over administration of legal aid

Members of Parliament are gearing up to give the Lord Chancellor's Department a roasting over the administration of legal aid.

The powerful House of Commons public accounts committee is to hold hearings on the operation of the merits test in both the criminal and civil field.

The hearing on criminal aid will be held against the background of comptroller and auditor general Sir Thomas Bourn's decision to qualify his audit on the account for a fifth year running.

Although the performance of the justices' clerks had improved, there was not enough evidence of “full compliance” with the regulations for the granting of aid and the assessment of contributions, he concluded.

Last year MPs on the public accounts committee expressed dismay that eight separate initiatives had failed to resolve the problems with the checking of financial eligibility.

“We are still very worried, there are a number of matters we are very unhappy about,” said Robert Sheldon, the committee's chair.

But Russell Wallman, head of the Law Society's professional policy committee, said complex, expensive and bureaucratic procedures were to blame for the problem, not the justices' clerks.

Laxity in the handing out of criminal aid in the magistrates courts has been a long-standing bugbear of the committee.

But before it tackles this issue the committee is to turn its sights on the civil aid merits test which has largely escaped criticism up until now.

The auditor general has passed on a detailed review of the Legal Aid Board's merits test arrangements to the committee.

Its decision to call evidence next month from LCD permanent secretary Sir Thomas Legg and Legal Aid Board chief executive Steve Orchard is an indication it is unhappy with the report, which is yet to be made public.