Legal Aid

Decision time

PUBLISHED November 17, 2006

Derek Hill of the Legal Services Commission has been inundated with letters and emails from legal aid practitioners pointing out the failings of the system that have been woven around the Criminal Defence Service Act, and which will eventually smother it.

He still does not, however, address the real problems, despite his claim to be listening to feedback (see [2006] Gazette, 9 November, 12).

The length and supply of forms was an irritation, nothing more. The real issue is delay ? and senior court staff have confirmed that to him. Hitherto a court would make an instant decision as to whether a person in custody would be granted legal aid, whereas now it has to be passed to an administrator in an office who will post out a decision in the next two days. Mr Hill refuses to explain why it is that experienced and legally qualified staff working in the courtroom six days a week have been removed from the decision-making process.

Practitioners are telling him that those who are being denied legal assistance most often are not the wealthy but the most vulnerable members of society ? the young, the weak, the mentally ill. They lead chaotic and disorganised lives and are not able to comply with the ordered and regulated thinking applied by the commission.

The Act has become unbalanced as a result of uninformed and inadequate planning and is beyond redemption.

It needs to be scrapped as a matter of urgency and the commission needs to start a genuine dialogue with the Courts Service and practitioners.

Geoff Bell, Stevens, Stoke-on-Trent