The Law Society has called the government’s recent cuts (from April 1 2013) to the legal aid budget ‘devastating’. The society’s president Lucy Scott Moncrieff commented: “As we are all too aware the reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act will affect appeals against cuts in benefits and legal advice on dealing with debt, employment cases and housing disputes, as well as family and matrimonial cases. We have warned government consistently that, as well as all the knock-on costs, the social consequences will be damaging to the whole of society, not just the vulnerable who will take the worst hit of all.”
The government has proposed cutting legal aid for prisoners, newly-arrived immigrants and people with incomes of more £37,500 to reduce the overall bill. The moves are part of a wider effort to cut legal aid costs in civil cases by £350m, and trimming £220m from the criminal bill. Scott Moncrieff told the BBC her body had mixed views on some of the changes, and the issue over legal aid for prisoners was not a “big deal”. But she claimed justice “shouldn’t depend on your status in the country, it should depend on your need”.
In particular the Law Society has reacted with disappointment to a court ruling that the Legal Aid Agency – formerly the Legal Services Commission (LSC) – is not normally obliged to fully fund the cost of an expert witness report ordered by a judge in the family court where only the child is legally aided and the parents are unable to afford the costs of a report. The ruling acknowledges that there may be some cases where the rights of child would require the legal aid budget to pay, but this would only arise ‘in rare cases’.
Today’s High Court judgment in the case of the R (JG) v The Legal Services Commission followed the LSC’s refusal to pay more than one-third of an expert’s fees, in a case in which the county court had previously determined that the parents were not able to pay the other two-thirds. The LSC’s decision was based on section 22 (4) of the Access to Justice Act which states that costs cannot be awarded against one party simply because they benefit from legal aid. The Law Society had intervened in the case to ensure that the court was aware of the difficulties that the LSC’s decision was likely to cause. Scott-Moncrieff said: “The LSC’s position simply results in deadlock.
The court has first to decide that an expert report is necessary, not just desirable, to help it decide a child’s future, but unless someone is able to pay – in this case the legal aid budget – there cannot be a report. The court’s ruling does not address that impasse, and for that reason it is disappointing for those children who find themselves in the family courts. “This is going to be a more common problem following the cuts on 1 April which removed legal aid from private law family proceedings in most cases, placing vulnerable people in more difficulty. In future, where children are parties to these proceedings it is more likely that they alone will be legally-aided.
Reports required by the court for the child’s benefit should be paid for by the legal aid budget where the parents are unable to contribute: it should not be good enough to argue, as the LSC did, that the parents also benefit from a report. These cases are about the child’s future.”
Browse our law jobs today on Simply Law Jobs.