THE LEGAL Aid Board has been accused by the Law Society of abandoning its advisory role to promote a political agenda.
In a “commentary” on the board's response to the Lord Chancellor's legal aid reform Green Paper, the society describes its emphasis on the need for expenditure control as a “political rather than technical assessment”.
Complaining that the board's paramount concern is expenditure control rather than the need to secure access to justice, the society adds: “The board's apparent view that increases in eligibility are undesirable unless cash limits are introduced is indefensible.”
The claim echoes allegations of political bias levelled at the Legal Aid Board last October by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, which accused it of “running the legal aid agenda”.
Earlier in the year, the then Law Society president Charles Elly had accused the board of acting as a “cheerleader for controversial ministerial ideas” following the appearance of a recruitment advertisement which assumed block contracts would be introduced.
But Legal Aid Board head Steve Orchard firmly rejected this latest allegation of bias, claiming the board had been “remarkably consistent” in its views on the need for expenditure control.
Quoting from the board's 1991 annual report, which said a long-term strategy for aid was impossible without cost control, he said nothing had changed.
“Only fundamental change can bring about better access to legal services,” he added.
Elsewhere in its commentary on the board's Green Paper response, the Law Society reiterates its view that block contracting will lead to a rationing of aid.
But it welcomes the board's “cautious” approach to the competitive tendering of contracts and its advocacy of the need for pilot projects to test any new proposals.
Russell Wallman, head of the society's professional policy unit, said Chancery Lane's concern focused on the board's apparent support for cash limits, an issue which divided the political parties.
“We think it's important to ensure the board does not become political,” he said.