A government minister facing a hostile reception from legal aid lawyers told them they can ?laugh as sneeringly as they wish?, but insisted that recent changes ? including the controversial way means-testing in criminal cases has been reintroduced ? are workable.
Speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) annual conference in Cardiff, Department for Constitutional Affairs minister Vera Baird also accused the lawyers of ?throwing back in my face? a ?25 allowance for completing the means-testing form. However, she later conceded that the ?25 was not after all an extra payment, but was built into the standard fee.
Ms Baird?s defence of the means-testing form during a question-and- answer session at the conference ? along with her assertion that ?it was easy to get through to the benefits office? for information about a suspect ? were met with laughter among delegates.
Andrew Keogh, a partner at national criminal law firm Tuckers, was damning in his assessment of the new means-testing regime, which has been criticised by practitioners as overly bureaucratic and slow.
Describing the ?crisis happening at the magistrates? courts?, Mr Keogh talked about application forms being rejected on the grounds of ink colour and about the impracticalities of getting the partner or spouse of the accused to sign them.
He added: ?These people are often dispossessed, lead chaotic lives, and have learning difficulties. We shouldn?t be building fresh obstacles between them and their right to justice.?
But Ms Baird maintained that ?the feedback from the courts is that the new scheme is not failing?. She added that it was a simpler system than in the past and called for a more ?positive attitude?.
Conference delegates also heard LAPG director Richard Miller describe the feedback on the Carter reforms as unequivocal. He said: ?Family legal aid will be in meltdown. Criminal defence services will be hard to find outside the main urban areas.
?Civil and social welfare law services will struggle on, but many of the most experienced and dedicated experts will leave the system because they cannot work in a structure based on averages in a system where the factors contributing to costs are outside their control and ever-changing.?
Acknowledging delegates? passionately held views, Sir Michael Bichard, chairman of the Legal Services Commission, said more focus should be on rewarding successful firms ?because no one has a vested interest in failure?.
He added later: ?Resources are tight, and are going to stay tight, but what we have got now ain?t working well. Everyone says their need for funds overrides all others.?