Legg lays blame for legal aid's poor image at solicitors' door

SOLICITORS are partly responsible for a surge in the number of hidden wealth allegations being levelled against legally aided litigants, the Lord Chancellor's top civil servant has claimed.

Sir Thomas Legg, permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, told Parliament's public accounts committee last week that challenging certificates had emerged as a litigation tactic.

“Litigation parties have become aware that this is a tactic which can be used, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not,” he said.

The hearing was held in the wake of a National Audit Office report on the operation of the civil aid merits test which had highlighted evidence of both “substantial” numbers of fraudulent applications and soaring numbers of fraud allegations made by third parties.

This year the number of allegations was likely to hit the 15,000 mark, 4,000 up on last year, the committee heard.

But Legal Aid Board head Steve Orchard defended the profession after one MP suggested the problem of fraudulent applications could be tackled by making solicitors responsible for the accuracy of their clients' means tests.

“I cannot see how it would work,” he said.

The hearing saw Orchard, Legg and benefits agency head Peter Mathison reassure MPs that every effort was being made to stamp out legal aid abuse.

Legg said his department was pushing for a law change to make it easier for people who lied about their means to be prosecuted.

He also revealed that Ministers had been advised there was a “strong case” for the Benefits Agency's job of carrying out means assessments to be handed over to the Legal Aid Board in order to simplify procedures.

The MPs on the committee who took turns to question the civil servants appeared most concerned about the waste in the system. They highlighted the £11.5 million paid out in emergency aid last year, given the fact that around a third of the certificates were subsequently revoked.

Russell Wallman, head of the Law Society's professional policy unit, agreed there was a need for a tightening of procedures for the issuing of emergency aid.