Radical reforms of the legal aid system were being discussed today by Legal Aid Minister Vera Baird and legal aid practitioners from the Yorkshire area.
Barristers, solicitors and other legal service practitioners have been invited to meet Ms Baird in Leeds as part of the consultation process following the publication of the independent Review of Legal Aid Procurement by Lord Carter of Coles. His paper suggested sweeping changes to the way Government buys legal advice on behalf of the public and these proposals are now being taken forward with views sought on how these might be implemented.
Legal Aid and Social Exclusion Minister Vera Baird said:
"Lord Carter has provided us with a blueprint for the future and I'm now keen to hear directly from stakeholders across England and Wales on how we make these changes work in practice. We are rightly proud of the quality and breadth of our legal aid system. It is vital that the law is available equally to both the vulnerable and the powerful, to those with little money as well as the rich. However, all of us who believe in this principle understand that this strong system can only continue within a framework affordable to the taxpayer.
"We are at a pivotal point for legal aid and Lord Carter's report provides a real opportunity to get fair justice at a fair price so we can ensure sustainable legal aid for the future. The Lord Chancellor asked for a fairer deal for legal aid which would be fair to the vulnerable, fair to taxpayers, fair to defendants and fair to practitioners and we strongly believe these proposals will provide the radical reform that is needed."
The independent review was commissioned in July 2005 by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer. Lord Carter spent the last year involved in detailed negotiations with the legal profession to reach a sustainable way forward for legal aid that he then detailed in his final report published earlier this month.
The Government responded to the Carter report with a formal joint consultation paper from the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Legal Services Commission which reflected Lord Carter's recommendations. Amongst the key proposals are:
Ms Baird said today:
"I expect to hear a range of views from legal aid practitioners here in Leeds. A new market-based system will require change in the legal profession, but we will work with lawyers to make the transition manageable. For the profession as a whole there is a real opportunity for sustainable growth.
"The Carter Report recognises that the legal advice market differs from place to place, and that it must meet the needs of the whole community. I'm interested to hear views on how this might work here.
For the public the proposals offer a sharper focus on the provision of good quality and accessible legal advice at a fair price for the taxpayer and free at point of use for those who cannot afford to pay.
It is essential that we encourage quality and diversity in the legal market and that legal aid clients have choice and confidence in their advice and representation."