Access to justice is a fundamental part of a properly functioning democracy. Without legal aid, and the dedicated lawyers who deliver it, our system of justice would quite simply collapse. Few eyebrows should be raised at such statements of the obvious, and, if they are, it says something about the skewed nature of the debate that has developed around the government's legal aid reforms. Because, as my proposals are considered in the House of Lords on Tuesday, there should be no doubt that the system is facing an existential crisis.
Legal aid in England and Wales costs vastly more than other common law variants ? twice as much per head as New Zealand's system for example. Its broad scope means that problems are dragged straight to the courtroom that could often be solved earlier and more simply elsewhere. Even the lawyers who deliver legal aid tear their hair out over the bureaucratic way the scheme operates.
So for any reasonable individual it is not a question of whether we reform legal aid, but how. My approach has been to take a methodical, first-principles look at the system. The logic is simple: to determine carefully which types of cases most urgently merit scarce resources, to encourage people to use non-adversarial solutions to their problems where appropriate, and to speed up and simplify court processes where not.
Our proposals protect legal aid where it matters most. It must be available where people's life, liberty or home is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or are victims of domestic violence, where they seek to challenge state action, and where their children may be taken into care. We have purposely avoided a blanket exclusion of other areas of law from legal aid by making an exceptional funding scheme available to protect fundamental rights of access to justice.
However, protecting some areas requires a more radical approach in others. So, we are putting a stop to routine availability of legal aid in cases involving family disputes, which can sometimes help string out cases for months or years, causing conflict not compromise. Instead we are increasing funding for mediation services by two-thirds.
We are also rethinking the trend of the last decade for voluntary sector advice providers to take on more and more strictly legal work. Instead, backed by a £20m transition fund, we are looking at long-term solutions for the likes of Citizens Advice bureaux. Our aim is to help them focus on their greatest strength ? practical, general advice that nips disputes in the bud, avoiding court altogether.
Finally we are getting to grips with the amazing excesses of no-win, no-fee agreements that see lawyers get costs that dwarf the damages they have won for their clients. By increasing the level of damages awarded to claimants but asking them to pay their lawyers' capped success fees if they win, we will restore balance to the system. The Trafigura case provides a salutary example of how the system has gone wrong. While each of the 30,000 claimants received £1,000 in damages, the lawyers claimed £100m. Under our reforms cases like this will still be brought, just at a more proportionate cost.
The backdrop to all this is that legal aid has never been, like the NHS, a service that largely provides for any need. Those most in need must be helped where they face serious injustice. But that does not mean that people must have taxpayer-funded legal help for whatever they want, whenever they want. This is neither affordable, nor sensible, when there are often better ways to resolve disputes than the winner-takes-all courtroom.
I fear that those who defend the status quo have fallen prey to a kind of well-intentioned legal paternalism. It matters because it distracts from the real issue raised by justice reform, which is how to create a system that works as a service for the public. This year we've begun deregulation of the legal sector, a change comparable in its possible impact to the Big Bang in the City in the 1980s ? and one that in time could lead to services that are far cheaper and more accessible for the public. To date technology has hardly touched the rarified world of legal dispute, but internet and phone-based services can also help deliver advice more efficiently and accessibly. Alongside these changes, we remain committed to introducing competition to streamline and simplify the system for legal providers, while also reducing costs.
The threat I want my reforms to pose is to a failing system, outdated methods and unreformed working practices, not to the needy. This is where the debate must focus tomorrow: reconciling the reduced but generous funding that fiscal reality requires, with the protection of fundamental rights of access to justice for critical issues that no civilised society can do without.