Fundholding 'seriously flawed'

The Social Market Foundation's “fundholders for justice” scheme for legal aid, currently being considered by the Government, is based on out-of-date statistics and contains “seriously flawed” analysis, says the Law Society.

In a damning report, the society says the money-saving proposal would turn legal aid into “a lottery”.

“Cash-limiting legal aid might be attractive to the Treasury, but it would be bad for the public the legal aid system exists to serve,” says the society.

It says legal aid would become “merely a discretionary benefit – inconsistent with the purpose of legal aid – which is to enable criminal trials to be conducted fairly, and to enable the Government to meet its responsibility for ensuring access to justice in civil matters.”

The report, 'A Lottery for justice?', written by head of professional policy Russell Wallman, combines acute criticisms of the fundholding proposals with analysis of the economics of legal aid and the causes of increased demand.

The report warns cash limiting would lead to dangerous inconsistencies in different regions of the UK and at different times of the year, as the money would run out quicker in some places than others.

It also warns that the Government would be able to make “covert cuts simply by underfunding the service, rather than having to bring regulations for debate in Parliament if it wished to change the scheme”.

Solicitor groups welcome the report, which was sent to the Lord Chancellor on Friday.

Anne Grosskurth, policy officer of the Legal Action Group, says: “We agree absolutely with the society's analysis. We think its a potentially dangerous proposal.”

Lyn Devonald, chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group, says: “It can't be right that legal aid could be curtailed, whether by cash considerations or by consideration of local priorities.”

The Lord Chancellor is considering the proposals in the light of his department's fundamental review, on which he is due to report in the spring of 1995.

However, Lord Mackay is due to speak in London as early as mid-January on his views of the “fund-holders for justice” proposals.

Reasons for the doubling of public spending since 1987/88 include factors stemming from deliberate Government policy.