Vera Baird QC MP, the Legal Aid Minister, today announced important changes to the new means test for legal aid in the Magistrates? Court.
The new means test was introduced on 2 October 2006 and about 60,000 representation orders have been granted. However, in some areas there have been concerns as to how means testing is operating. The changes aim to address these concerns.
Legal Aid Minister, Vera Baird, said:
?It is to the benefit of everyone, not least the client, that where a case can appropriately be dealt with at first hearing that it happens. This is a central part of the Government?s aims to streamline criminal justice. It is therefore important that solicitors are prepared to represent clients at the first hearing and part of that is providing the necessary incentive.
?I want to avoid problems with payment for solicitors who represent clients at a first hearing, before a decision has been made on their legal aid application. They can get stuck without payment, if the form is rejected because of a technical error, and the case has ended. From 11th December this will not happen. In that situation, where a defendant qualifies for legal aid, the solicitor will be guaranteed payment from the date when the court received the original form. I would like this change to be brought in today but guidance has to go out to ensure that it works properly. ?
?I also intend to change the Early Cover scheme to make payment available when an application form is submitted within 5 working days from the point of first instruction, provided this is no later than the first hearing. This will replace the current situation where the Early Cover payment is only paid when the application form is submitted within 2 working days of the client being charged. I would prefer to introduce this change immediately, too, but it is a contract change which requires the LSC to consult. It will happen, subject to responses, by 5 January 2007.
?In addition we will simplify the forms use for young people and consulting with practitioners change the forms to make them simpler. The requirements for partners are also to be made easier
?The changes we propose making to the means test are evidence that we have listened to the feedback from solicitors and acted on it. We look forward to engaging with solicitors further, particularly on the improvements to the forms.?
The Government remains committed to the principle of means testing. It is right that those who can afford to pay for their own defence should do so, not the taxpayer, and legal aid is focused on the most vulnerable who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.