THE BLOG

Legal Aid Reform Is Necessary

25/06/2013 17:33 BST

It is no secret difficult decisions have had to be made to reduce public spending, and you'll be hearing more about those tomorrow when the latest spending review is announced. When this Government came into power in May 2010 we faced the largest deficit in peacetime history and the country's finances were in a mess.

The debate about the size and scope of legal aid was already underway when we came into office in 2010 but was given added focus and urgency by the scale of the economic crisis we faced and the urgent need to cut public expenditure.

The legal aid system we inherited was around £2billion a year, one of the most expensive in the world. Not all of that spending has been on areas that the general public would think of as good value for their money.

The steady rise in spending we saw from the Eighties - more than a doubling in real terms - represented a system that had grown to become something it was never intended to be. It simply wasn't sustainable and government was spending money it didn't have.

We can't escape the fact that legal aid is taxpayers' money. It's not free and certainly is not a bottomless pot. We need to get the best value from every penny spent and we have made progress already in delivering a more efficient, targeted legal aid system. The reforms to civil and criminal legal aid that we've already brought in - cuts in fees and changes to the scope of the regime - will bring about estimated savings of £320million every year by 2014-15.

Yet we're still spending around £1billion every year on criminal legal aid. We've just concluded a consultation on ways of getting the best deal for the taxpayer - a package for reform which would get around £220million of further savings from the legal aid scheme.

A significant proportion of our spending is swallowed up by a few very high cost cases. Last year, one topped the list at more than £8.5million. For criminal cases like these, the most expensive and long-running, we've consulted on a cut to fees, to stop the bill spiralling ever upwards.

We have also proposed to introduce competition for criminal legal aid contracts, so that lawyers around the country bid for a contract to offer a quality service at a price the taxpayer can afford. Under the proposals the wealthiest Crown Court defendants who can afford to pay for their defence would be stopped from automatically receiving legal aid upfront so that the taxpayer does not have to fight to recover money paid towards their costs at a later date.

Some of these proposals have caused disquiet and even protests from the legal community - as referenced in Monday's Huffington Post blog by Glenn McMahon. I can understand why the legal professions feel bruised and of course some lawyers might be worried about how this might affect them and what the future holds. We are now carefully considering responses to the consultation before taking final decisions.

Some of the claims made by those who don't agree with the proposals simply are not the case, including some of the claims in Monday's blog. The changes on which we've consulted won't affect people getting a fair trial, and they will not destroy Britain's criminal justice system, of which we so rightly proud. We will maintain a legal aid system that protects the most vulnerable, and is sustainable and affordable for future generations.

Our legal aid system is something that we need to get right. Let me be clear - I am incredibly proud of this country's legal aid tradition and our legal profession which underpins it. Legal aid plays its part in access to justice and it is not going away.

The ways in which people access justice in this country will continue to evolve, and our legal aid system must evolve with it. My message to lawyers is a simple one: innovate, diversify and seize the opportunities that are there. Like the rest of those working with public funds we need the legal profession to help us find the savings in spending we need to help put the country back on track. The alternative - shutting your eyes and ears to the need for change that is happening to legal aid, to litigants' requirements, and to the justice system - is no alternative at all.