Legal Aid

Constitutional Committee Critical of Legal Aid Bill

PUBLISHED November 18, 2011

An influential committee in the House of Lords has highlighted three sections of the Legal Aid Bill* which it believes should be redrafted. The House of Lords Constitutional Committee reviews bills being considered by the Lords ?to examine the constitutional implications? of public bills.As the UK does not have a written constitution this is an important role, otherwise changes to the law could be made in breach of constitutional principles which have evolved over time through the common law, statute or convention. The Committee states, ?There is no doubt that access to justice is a constitutional principle? and suggests the bill should be amended to give the Lord Chancellor a duty to ?secure that legal aid is made available in order to ensure effective access to justice.? LAG believes that this would have important implications as much would hinge on the courts interpretation of the word ?effective? if the Bill was amended in this way. LAG is also pleased that the Constitutional Committee has addressed our concern over the independence of decision making and the Director of Legal Aid Casework role which is proposed in the Bill. It suggests that the House of Lords will need to consider if the post is sufficiently independent from government and if an appeals system ?must? be established for decisions on entitlement to legal aid. The Committee questions if clause 12 in the Bill conflicts with the right, contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, to advice for a person held in custody at a police station. The Committee suggests that clause 12 should be amended so that the right to advice in the police station cannot be undermined in practice. In the House of Commons LAG, the Law Society and other organisations, suggested amendments which dealt with these issues, but they were rejected by the bill committee with its inbuilt government majority. LAG believes the Constitutional Committee?s report will add considerable credibility to the argument that the Bill needs to be amended by the Lords to deal with the role of the Lord Chancellor in ensuring effective access to justice, independence in decision making on entitlement to legal aid and the right to free legal advice for suspects detained in a police station. A copy of the Constitution Committee?s report is available at- * Full name Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill