Legal Aid

Legal aid cuts ?will deny poor access to justice?, says Lord Woolf

PUBLISHED November 21, 2011

The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf is warning that the Government must amend its proposals to overhaul the £2.1 billion legal aid system so as to protect access to justice.

Lord Woolf says that as they stand, the proposals risk breaching fundamental principles of the rule of law because people will be denied access to the courts.

He is preparing to speak out next week in the Lords when the Government?s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill starts its passage in the Lords.

The former most senior judge in England and Wales is backing an amendment by Lord Pannick, the leading QC, to impose a statutory duty on the Government to ensure access to justice is protected.

Lord Woolf said: ?This is important to ensure that justice is done. The danger at present that in seeking to make changes and to achieve a specific purpose, injustice may be caused.

?Ministers are taking away a substantial amount of legal aid and at the same time, changing the arrangements by which lawyers act on a no win, no fee basis. I agree with the latter and welcome the Government?s attempt here to reform,? he told The Times.

?But the worry is whether enough is being left to ensure a proper legal service exists so that claims can be brought and that genuine cases will have access to justice,? he said.

The move is the first serious prospect of ministers being forced to amend their provisions which will see large-scale reductions in the scope of the legal aid scheme in England and Wales.

They argue that even with the cuts of £350 million a year over the next four years, the scheme will be the most generous in the world, barring Northern Ireland.

Last week the Lords? Constitution Committee, which includes Lord Pannick as well as the former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg, published a report on the Bill.

It said that access to justice is a constitutional principle an a vital component of the rule of law that should underpin any scrutiny of the Bill in the House of Lords.

The change would oblige the Lord Chancellor to secure that, ?within the resources made available? that individuals ?have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs.?

A second amendment would give the Lord Chancellor to extend legal aid to those areas of legal dispute that are to cut out, ?in the light of experience and if the economy improves.?

The Government?s bill removes legal aid for a wide range of cases, including all family disputes arising from divorce, such as over children or maintenance; as well as for clinical negligence claims and disputes over debt or housing.

Ministers argue that private disputes arising from divorce are better dealt with out of court through mediation; and that victims of medical accidents will still be able to bring claims, on a no win, no fee basis.

But bodies such as the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers argue that parallel changes that ministers are introducing to curb no win, no fee work will deter lawyers from acting in most such claims.