Sir, On Monday I chaired a magistrates? court on the first day of the new legal aid regime, which reintroduces means-testing for defendants who need legal representation (report, Oct 2, and letter, Oct 3).
What worries those of us who work in the courts is that the complexity of the new application form (the means statement alone runs to more than two dozen pages), together with the disorganised lifestyle of so many defendants, makes it inevitable that cases will have to be adjourned while legal aid is sorted out. That proved to be the case on half a dozen occasions on Monday.
Magistrates and their legal staff have made enormous efforts over the past year or two to reduce delay. The latest tinkering with the system has thrown the process into reverse. The new system is bound to result in courts dealing with many more unrepresented defendants, and these cases will take two or three times longer to deal with than those where legal help is available.
A few years ago means-testing for legal aid was abolished as it yielded less than it cost to administer. How long before this happens again?
RICHARD BRISTOW, JP
Sir, Lord Carter of Coles said that the Legal Services Commission administration budget should be cut by one third. If the LSC believes that his proposals are wrong, because the expenditure is serving the public good, perhaps it will understand how solicitors feel about the payments they receive for serving their clients.
Director, Legal Aid Practitioners Group
Sir, Excessive bureaucracy has driven many firms out of legal aid and the Carter ?reforms? ? ie, cuts ? will drive out many more. Solicitors are professional people well used to running effective and cost-efficient firms. The notion that such administrative oversight is necessary is faintly offensive.
An example: the Legal Aid Board, which preceded the LSC, published an annual handbook, which contained all relevant legislation, notes for guidance and a schedule of reference material. Cost: about ?15. The LSC now publishes an enormous four-volume manual, full of impenetrable jargon and glutinous self-congratulatory prose. Cost: about ?100 a year.
Many solicitors used to do some legal aid work as a public service, subsidised by their other activities. Lord Carter says that is wrong, without explaining why. Most concerning about the Carter proposals is that parents whose children are taken into care will not be able to find a competent and experienced solicitor to fight their corner. The remuneration is just not adequate.
Sir, One of the most controversial proposals facing those involved in criminal legal aid work is the introduction of price competitive tendering.
The effect of this new system is likely to be that small, dedicated criminal law practices will be excluded, leaving only the very large firms that are willing to accept the cheapest prices. This will inevitably lead to a deterioration in the quality of representation and many practitioners leaving criminal law. The new regime will also have a devastating effect on freelance advocates and advisers who play a key role at courts and police stations.
While legal aid firms are, and should be, accountable to the Legal Services Commission and the Law Society, the Government and its agencies should be held accountable to the public who should know that legal aid services are being killed off, in the subtlest possible way.