Peers urge government to stop legal aid cuts


Crossbench peer Baroness Deech led a debate on the effect of cuts in legal aid funding on the justice system in England and Wales, on 11 July 2013

On 1 April significant changes to civil legal aid in England and Wales came into effect as part of a plan to reform the system and save £350m a year.

The changes meant certain types of case were no longer eligible for public funds - including divorce, child contact, welfare benefits, employment, clinical negligence, and housing law except in very limited circumstances.

Baroness Deech told peers she was concerned that the changes would lead to a weakened legal profession and impair its ability to protect the rule of law.

"I am convinced the protections of the profession and the public enshrined in the Legal Services Act will be undermined by the Ministry of Justice's proposals as they stand," she said.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has said the changes will undermine the ability of lawyers to prevent miscarriages of justice and will put profit rather than justice at the heart of legal aid.

A total of 145 Treasury Counsel barristers have expressed concerns about the legal aid changes, including one proposal which would limit legal aid to those who can prove UK residency exceeding one year. Treasury Counsel barristers have said this would create "an underclass of persons" with no access to the courts.

Justice Minister Lord McNally said the government was listening to concerns over the changes, citing Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's recent reversal to retain the right of defendants on legal aid to choose their lawyer; and told peers the changes were an on-going process.

Lord McNally did, though, warn peers that "decisions made will be made in the context of economic realities, from which the legal aid fund cannot escape".

"There will be cuts which will mean some tough choices, but when the cuts have been made we will still be left with one of the most generous legal aid schemes in the world," he said.

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