Legal Aid

Free access to justice is not under threat

PUBLISHED October 19, 2006

Jonathan Freedland is absolutely right to say that legal aid has always been a vital part of Britain's welfare state, and that free access to justice is "no less a fundamental right than education or healthcare" (It is worth fighting to save the least loved branch of the welfare state, October 11). Yet it is not reform that is the greatest threat to legal aid's survival, as he claims, but the status quo.

England and Wales have the most generous and high-quality legal aid system in the world, and nothing in our proposals will change that. But the present antiquated way that public money is used to fund private firms of solicitors and self-employed barristers does not serve the best interests of clients, taxpayers or even the legal profession.

Public spending on legal aid has been rising at an extraordinary rate in recent years - from ?1.5bn in 1997 to more than ?2bn a year today. This increase has almost entirely been taken up by criminal legal aid at the expense of support for people in vital civil cases like child protection and family disputes, and there has also been a number of high-profile, complex cases that have imposed significant financial costs on the system. Contrary to Freedland's assertions, our report addresses both of these issues.

It is difficult to argue that this increase in funding has enhanced the quality of the service - indeed there has been a steady flight of lawyers from publicly funded work to what have been seen as more lucrative branches of the law. So, far from creating what Freedland describes as "easyJet-style legal services", central to our proposals was to raise the value and quality of legal aid work.

I would agree with Freedland's concerns about the future of legal aid if we had proposed to control spending by reducing people's eligibility for support, or nationalising the legal aid system to give clients no choice as to who should represent them. But we rejected these options. Doing nothing, however, is not an option. The rate of increase in spending is unsustainable, and after a year of engagement with the professional bodies and a wide variety of groups and individuals, we believe that the only way to maintain the fundamental principles of our legal aid system while controlling costs is to improve the way the state buys legal services.

The system cannot be immune from financial scrutiny and reform. Indeed, given that this service - perhaps uniquely within the postwar welfare state - is delivered not by the state but by the private sector, there is an even stronger case for ensuring maximum efficiency in the way public money is spent. For all Freedland's sniffiness about "the language of the market" within our reform proposals, the legal services sector has always operated as a market and will continue to do so.

Of course, change will be difficult for some, particularly for those firms that do not provide the appropriate level of quality, capacity or skills to be awarded publicly funded work. But the principle of free access to justice is not, as Freedland claims, "under severe threat". Indeed, we believe our proposals will help ensure that this principle is properly maintained.