UK Politics

Legal aid change may hit the vulnerable hardest say MPs

Statue of Lady Justice at the Old Bailey
Image caption The proposals focused on legal aid in civil rather than criminal cases

MPs say vulnerable groups may be disproportionately affected by a shake-up of civil legal aid in England and Wales and want it to be "refined".

Assistance is set to be only routinely available in cases where an applicant's life or liberty are at stake and funds ended for a wide range of disputes.

The Justice Select Committee said the £2bn legal aid budget must be cut but alternative savings had to be explored.

Ministers said they faced "tough choices" but aimed to simplify things.

Under plans announced last year, legal aid would no longer be available in a number of areas, including some divorce cases and clinical negligence.

'Perverse incentive'

The proposals, intended to cut the £2bn annual legal aid bill by £350m a year by 2015, are thought likely to reduce the number of civil legal aid cases by 500,000.

Publishing a report on the issue, the cross-party committee said the legal aid system was one of the most expensive in the world and all parties agreed that fundamental changes were needed.

However, it expressed concerns that the likely impact of the proposed changes was unclear and that non-for-profit organisations may not be able to step in to provide alternative support to people because of a lack of funding.

More specifically, it has urged ministers to reconsider plans to focus legal aid in family law cases on those involving accusations of domestic violence and abuse.

The proposals, which have been criticised by barristers and family mediation groups, could provide a "perverse incentive" for people to make false accusations, the committee said, and priority must be given to the "most deserving" cases.

"Concerns remain that there is potential for vulnerable groups of people to be disproportionately hit by the changes," Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the committee, said.

"The government's proposals need considerable further refinement before moving forward and alternative ways of achieving savings should be examined."

One area where savings can be made, it suggests, is in the way the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) handles benefit claims.

The committee said the number of appeals against DWP decisions had risen dramatically last year and that more than one in three of its verdicts were overturned at tribunal. The department must reduce "incorrect decision making" or face having to pay a "surcharge".

'Out of court'

The Ministry of Justice said it would carefully consider all responses to a public consultation on the legal aid proposals which closed last month.

"The committee rightly highlights that the current system is one of the most costly in the world and is in need of reform," a spokesman said.

"We have had to make some tough choices about all areas of government spending. As the committee's report recognises, legal aid must play its part in that.

"The proposals were intended to complement the government's wider programme of reform to move towards a simpler justice system.

"One which is more responsive to public needs, which allows people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies where they are appropriate, and which encourages more efficient resolution of contested cases where necessary."

'Displacement of costs'

Labour urged the government to rethink its plans as they would restrict access to justice.

"The report backs our assertion that the government's sums don't add up on their choice of cuts," said justice spokesman Andy Slaughter.

"It costs many times more to help someone when they're about to be made homeless or their life has collapsed, instead of helping them early on by providing legal advice.

"The public purse will be hit by wider social and economic costs further down the line as a result of cutting the social welfare aspect of legal aid. What might appear to be a saving for taxpayers is nothing more than a displacement of costs elsewhere in the public sector."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites