Falconer to put civil legal aid at top of agenda

PUBLISHED May 12, 2005

Correcting the imbalance between criminal and civil legal aid spending will be the government?s main legal policy priority in the next Parliament, the Lord Chancellor announced this week.

However, Lord Falconer rejected calls to ring-fence the civil legal aid budget ? but he did not rule out extending price competitive tendering to civil work in time.

He said that although the legal aid budget has risen from ?1.5 billion to ?2.1 billion under Labour, civil spending has dropped 22%. As a result, he said, ?people haven?t got the advice they need?.

Lord Falconer said there would be no extra money beyond that already announced. As a result, there will be a major push to reduce the length of criminal cases ? ?the days of the 18-month trial are over,? he said.

This will be done by encouraging and paying for early out-of-court preparation. Judges will also have a major role in case management and will aim to facilitate a single advocate running a case from start to finish. Lawyers may not be paid extra when cases overrun.

Removing juries in fraud trials will be on the table again, while those found guilty who can clearly afford to pay for their own advice will have to do so.

Implementing the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and progressing the Clementi reforms will also be two of the Department for Constitutional Affairs? (DCA) priorities.

Law Society chief executive Janet Paraskeva urged Lord Falconer to rethink the idea of ring-fencing civil legal aid.

She said: ?The government must ensure that the legal aid system provides access to justice for people involved in both criminal and civil cases. Other policy changes, including increases in the number of criminal offences, inevitably put pressure on the criminal legal aid budget.?

Lord Falconer will be assisted by Harriet Harman QC, who has become minister of state at the DCA. She is replaced as Solicitor-General by fellow solicitor Mike O?Brien. Former whip Bridget Prentice has joined Baroness Ashton as a junior DCA minister.