Lawyers have attacked a damning report showing a quarter of criminal legal aid claims are paid without checks or proof of entitlement.
The National Audit Office report also reveals that in 38 per cent of legal aid applications magistrates court clerks “get the sums wrong” when calculating payments.
Legal aid lawyers have jumped to their defence, pointing out that courts do not have time to thoroughly ratify all claims, while delays in granting legal aid would result in defendants not being represented.
Legal Aid Practitioners' Group chairman Richard Miller comments: “There is a great difference between saying legal aid is being granted wrongly and being given legal aid without proof.
“When there are delays in the benefits agencies sending the forms, the magistrate has a choice between incurring costs for adjournments or taking a risk and going ahead.”
The Law Society's head of solicitors' remuneration, Dav-id Hartley, says: “For quite some time, we have been saying that the costs and delays involved in doing these assessments – the bureaucratic paper-chase – are not worth it. About 94 per cent of people are eligible for legal aid in criminal cases anyway.”
Rosie Eagleson, general secretary of the Association of Magisterial Officers, claims: “These figures are a symptom of cuts in staffing levels and training.”
She says magistrates court staff face pressure to, on the one hand, reduce delays in court and, on the other, make sure legal aid applications are properly presented.
This is the eighth year running that the National Audit Office, which acts as Parliament's financial watchdog, has qualified the Lord Chancellor's Department's (LCD) accounts. It points out there is no direct accountability between the LCD, which has overall responsibility for the £600m a year paid out in criminal legal aid, and magistrates court clerks who have the power to grant it for individual cases.
The LCD is pinning its hopes on a solution with the introduction of the Access to Justice Bill.