LEGAL AID is a vital element of the welfare state: justice for all is as much a part of what Labour is about as is education for all and healthcare for all. But just as education and the NHS need reform, so too does legal aid. Legal aid spending is rising to unaffordable levels, and the balance of expenditure is wrong. We need to redirect and rebalance the system.
Governments of different political stripes have been wrestling with this problem for years. Our job is to provide a system of legal aid which is fair ? fair to the vulnerable, fair to defendants, fair to practitioners and fair to the taxpayer. We asked Lord Carter of Coles to look at the way the Government procures legal aid. He issued his interim report this year, and his final report is imminent.
Even for an experienced Whitehall hand, he has a tough job on here. Over the past decade alone, legal aid spending has been galloping upwards, rising, for example, from ?1.5 billion in 1997 to ?2.1 billion last year ? far outstripping inflation. We cannot allow this to continue.
With no new money to hand, we need to distribute the budget we have to best effect. Although crime overall is falling, criminal legal aid has been the driver for the increase in spending. This rise is at the expense of civil legal aid ? and this disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and socially excluded, groups which Labour has traditionally, and rightly, sought to protect. They are in need of early, high-quality legal advice to save their problems from multiplying and their lives descending into chaos ? at great cost, to them and to us. We have made headway in this area, but more radical reform is needed.
Lord Carter is looking for a system that will provide better quality and better value for money. It is not good value, for instance, to have 200 solicitors on a police station duty rota handling only one or two clients on their watch and waiting around at public expense to see those same few clients the next day at the magistrates? court. Nor is the public well served by duplication of effort between solicitors and barristers in the Crown Court, nor by the massive growth in the length and costs of very high-cost cases (VHCCs). At the same time, the system does not recognise those who produce the highest-quality service nor does it reward the most efficient.
These, and the other matters Lord Carter is dealing with, are tough questions. And they are likely to produce answers that may be challenging for some. However, I believe ? from the discussions I have had with the professions and others ? that there is a consensus that today?s system is not sustainable.
We know that people who are in difficulty need quality advice and representation. We know that they need lawyers of the highest quality able to supply it. We applaud Lord Carter ? whose review has taken an inclusive approach, working closely with the Bar, the Law Society and other practitioners? groups ? and applaud those groups for their input. The Lord Chancellor and I and others in government have all been working in lockstep with Lord Carter. I expect the responses to what he will recommend to reflect this.
Lord Carter?s interim report foresaw fewer, larger suppliers. That need not mean fewer solicitors, but the restructuring of firms looks inevitable. There may be particular implications for firms owned and run by lawyers from black and ethnic minority communities. But let there be no doubt that any future system will safeguard proper provision of services for all our diverse communities and should ensure equal career chances for professionals of all backgrounds.
How the Carter recommendations are put into place will be central. Where, when and how the proposals are implemented are all issues that will be key to the consultation process the Government plans to put into place over the summer.
For my part, I shall not see much sunshine this August, unless there is constant fine weather in all parts of the country. Once Lord Carter publishes, I will visit as many regions, towns and cities as I can to discuss the proposals. I look forward to vigorous input from members of my former profession in the law.
I know that the Carter recommendations come at a time of great change, when we are looking hard at the criminal justice system, at sentencing, at human rights, at reforming the market for legal services. But I know, as well, that we have to reform our system of legal aid. We have to get fair justice at a fair price. Lord Carter will show us a positive way forward. Our duty to the public is to ensure that, when we get Carter, all of us involved in the provision of legal aid, working together, get it right.
The author is Legal Aid Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs