The Ministry of Justice has today published a set of reforms that aim to rebalance the legal aid budget to ensure that the £2.1 billion currently spent every year goes as far as possible in favour of civil help for those who need it most.
The reforms are outlined within the government's response to the consultation on legal aid funding reform proposals which are designed to help sustain the legal aid budget over the next spending review period, and ensure that we focus criminal legal aid spending effectively.
The reforms intend to make better use of the criminal legal aid budget and include changes that rationalise payment structures.
The reforms include:
Containing the cost of legal aid representation at police stations by reducing police station fees in the most expensive and oversubscribed areas.
Ending the current fee arrangements that remunerate litigators for preparation for committal hearings. The change will see all working on Committals combined into one fixed fee which will be paid out of the Litigator Graduate Fee Scheme.
Ending the anomaly by which practitioners in criminal cases receive a fee for file reviews which does not apply in civil cases. This would see an end to payments for criminal file reviews.
It is estimated that approximately £23 million in savings will be made through the reforms to police station fees, changes to committal fees and the removal of the file review payments over the course of 2010/11.
In addition to these reforms, the Ministry of Justice will pursue a second round consultation to explore reforms to Crown Court advocates fees. On average, advocates acting for the prosecution receive 18% less pay than if they were acting for the defence, which could be creating an incentive for barristers to favour defence work over prosecution work.
A separate response to the proposals on experts' fees will be published in January.
Legal Aid Minister, Willy Bach said:
'At a time when we are faced with tougher economic conditions we do have to make some hard decisions which aren't going to be popular with everyone. However it's important that we remember that central to these changes is a commitment to do all we can to ensure that legal aid is prioritised effectively so that more people are able to access it to resolve their legal problems, particularly in the current climate when more people are struggling with debt, housing and employment problems.'
'The UK has one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world and one that the government is proud of. It is even more important now that public money is managed efficiently and effectively and we are committed to ensuring the legal aid budget delivers best value for taxpayers money.'