After 10 years the body responsible for the £2.1 billion legal aid budget is to be abolished. The decision has been made in an attempt to regain control of the amount the government spend on legal aid services. An executive agency will replace the existing Legal Services Commission, which has received damning reports of not offering best value for money.
Last year the National Audit Office raised concerns and questions about the way legal aid was handled by the commission. As a result the government has little choice but scrap proposals for ‘best-value tendering’ to purchase criminal legal aid services from law firms at competitive prices.
The justice secretary, Jack Straw has said ‘The legal aid budget is a significant amount designed to help people when they are their most vulnerable. It is now the right time to make some meaningful changes that will help us protect and sustain the world-class legal aid service that we are so proud to deliver.’
However concerns have been expressed that by giving the government control of the legal aid services would violate human rights and potentially threaten the independence of legal services. Criminal defence solicitors and law firms offering no win no fee solicitors are also concerned as the implications of the changes will potentially have an impact on they way they are able to help those seeking justice.
Director of the Legal Action Group, Steve Hynes has said ‘My concern is that this is a complete politicisation of legal aid administration. There is going to be no semblance of independence. An executive agency pretty much does what its ministers say it will. This is not just about justice but also the appearance of justice.”
The government denies that the changes would politicise legal aid ahead of the forth coming general election, saying they expected support for preliminary legislation and support from the opposition parties. Lord Bach the legal aid minister said ‘We think it is important to act before the election … to improve legal aid by strengthening governance and establishing a more rigorous approach.’
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