Legal Aid

Means test ?disaster? fears

PUBLISHED September 9, 2006

Lawyers warned of ?disaster writ large? this week as the Legal Services Commission (LSC) published guidance on its means-testing scheme for the magistrates? courts, to be introduced next month.

The outcry came as a group of more than 75 lawyers in Plymouth walked out of an LSC presentation on the scheme in protest. From 2 October, most adult defendants in the magistrates? courts will have to pass a means test to qualify for legal aid. They will be required to complete a 26-page application form, with solicitors receiving no payment for assisting with the form.

Under the guidance, defendants who are already detained in custody will be able to provide a ?statement of truth? regarding their means instead of formal evidence. An early cover scheme will allow lawyers to act before an application has been processed, while a hardship scheme is intended to help defendants whose income is above the test threshold, but who have large outgoings.

Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA), said: ?The early cover payment is inadequate, and many defendants will be appearing in court without solicitors until there is clarity on that. There also seem to be many imponderables as to how the hardship fund is going to work.

?The LSC seems to indicate that of those who are subject to the means test, there will be a failure rate of 46%, so a lot of people will be knocked out of eligibility. That does not fit with Lord Carter?s assertion that he can guarantee quantity of work.? He added: ?This is due to come in on 2 October ? the courts will grind to a halt on 3 October.?

Rob Brown, executive officer at the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said: ?We are not against means testing in principle, but we have ended up with a long, complicated form and a lot of bureaucracy. Many deserving people may not get legal aid. It will even provide a perverse incentive for defendants to choose the Crown Court, where there is no means testing.?

CLSA director Rodney Warren added: ?Means testing will cause delay, whatever the determination to keep bureaucracy down.?

Meanwhile, Sandy Morrison, partner at Plymouth firm Woollcombe Yonge, said solicitors had walked out ?en masse? from the LSC presentation last week, after two members of staff from the LSC proved unable to answer questions and ?had not been properly briefed by the Department for Constitutional Affairs? (DCA) policy directorate?. He said: ?It showed a lack of respect and foresight by the policy directorate in sending down two inadequately prepared people to face the wrath of all the criminal solicitors present? I have never seen solicitors walk out like that before.?

An LSC spokesman said training was provided by knowledgeable and qualified training staff, with questions raised sent back to policy officials at the DCA and LSC. He added that means testing will save ?35 million a year, and application forms were designed to be easy to use.

Rachel Rothwell