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We Cannot Afford to Leave Legal Aid Immune From Budget Savings

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If you were to only hear the protests of some of those opposing the government's legal aid reforms you could well imagine that we were proposing the end of our justice system. That is categorically not the case.

Isaac Shaffer's blog on this very site suggests we are cutting legal aid "to the bone". So readers may be surprised to find that even after we've finished with legal aid reform, England and Wales will continue to have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. We will still be spending around £1.5billion pounds a year and ensuring legal aid remains available for those most in need of legal help.

The bill for our legal aid system has more than doubled in real terms since the Eighties. Tackling this has become absolutely necessary given that all public services, and indeed many businesses and households, are having to tighten their belts. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that legal aid has been costing too much.

We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system and that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer. We have engaged constructively and consistently with lawyers since our original proposals were put out to consultation in April - including revising some of our proposals in response to their comments - and continue to do so.

Mr Shaffer raises concerns about the planned residence test for civil legal aid, but we believe it is an important part of making the system fairer for the hard-working taxpayers who pay for it.

Why should those without a strong connection to the UK, such as those who have barely stepped over the border or are here illegally, be eligible for civil legal aid? We want any reform to be the right reform, which is why we listened very carefully to views on our original proposals and built in a number of additional safeguards. The test will not apply in cases involving protection of children issues or victims of domestic violence or human trafficking. Asylum seekers will also not be subject to the test in recognition that this group tends to be among the most vulnerable in society.

We must also be very clear that the residence test will not apply for legal aid for criminal cases, so it makes no difference to the process where a lawyer is provided to advise someone facing a criminal charge. I notice Mr. Shaffer does not mention any of this.

This is not the only proposal for reforming legal aid and making it more affordable. We will also stop criminal legal aid being given to prisoners unnecessarily - such as those using legal aid unnecessarily to seek an easier ride elsewhere. The prisoner complaints system should be the first port of call for these issues, as well as other mechanisms. They do not require a lawyer, yet currently we pay around £4million a year for lawyers to unnecessarily take part in such a process. Legal aid funding will of course be retained for the cases that really justify it.

We are also introducing a threshold on Crown Court legal aid to stop the wealthiest defendants being automatically granted legal aid. This would only affect defendants who have around £3,000 or more left in the bank each month after paying their essential bills - such as food, mortgage or rent, utilities and childcare. Currently we have to fight to get the money back after their trial, and often fail.

I fully understand why some in the legal profession feel bruised or worry about how our reforms might affect them. However the government and the legal profession must work together to create a legal aid system that protects those who need it most whilst also commanding the confidence of taxpayers who fund it.

Put simply, we want to ensure the limited money we have available for legal aid is concentrated on those cases where it is needed most. Our proposals would ensure a system sustainable and affordable for future generations, and it will remain one of the most generous in the world.

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