Friday 01 March 2013 by Catherine Baksi
Matthew Coats, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, has been appointed to a key role at the new agency that will bring legal aid under the wing of the Ministry of Justice, the lord chancellor has announced.
In a written ministerial statement setting out governance arrangements for the Legal Aid Agency, Chris Grayling confirmed that Coats (pictured) would be the first director of casework. Under the 2012 Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, the director of legal aid casework is responsible for making independent decisions on whether to grant legal aid in individual cases.
The new agency, will cost £9m to set up. However the MoJ expects to save £17m by 2015 through improved and shared administration processes as well as from an unspecified number of redundancies.
Grayling described its creation as an 'important step' for the MoJ in strengthening governance and accountability.
He said: 'Legal aid is a significant area of public expenditure and it is vital that its administration is undertaken by an appropriate body.'
Over recent years the LSC has come under increasing scrutiny over its ability to administer legal aid. The National Audit Office has qualified the LSC's accounts for the past four years due to overpayments made to providers.
However some lawyers are concerned about potential political interference in the granting of legal aid under the new regime.
Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said: 'They have set up Chinese walls around the new Legal Aid Agency. The director of casework will have some independence of decision-making but I don't think that is good enough.'
A Law Society spokeswoman said: 'The Law Society looks forward to working closely with the Legal Aid Agency to try to ensure that the administration of the legal aid system is as efficient as possible.'
She added: 'Some concerns have been expressed as to whether the new structure will ensure sufficient independence of decision-making. We will monitor this carefully and highlight any issues that emerge in practice.'