LORD CARTER OF COLES has a difficult job as he tries to restructure legal aid. He must perform a balancing act within existing budgetary constraints in creating a system that is worthwhile and sustainable. His initial report on how criminal legal aid should be procured proposes a market approach.
The Law Society recognises that such a course can have a role in any new structure but it doubts that it would work universally across the system. Lord Carter has similar reservations and we were pleased his report acknowledges that a market model would not be appropriate in some circumstances and in some geographical areas.
The success of any proposals will depend on how they affect the viability and long-term sustainability of legal aid providers. Therefore, the Carter market model must be fully costed and evaluated before we can assess its prospects.
The legal aid system has reached a point of crisis. A problem arises because successive governments have failed to budget properly for the impact of new criminal justice policies and laws. The spiralling cost of the biggest criminal cases in particular has had the effect of depleting the civil legal aid budget to the point where millions of people are unable to access legal advice to solve serious social problems, such as housing, debt and family breakdown. Ministers have acknowledged that the system is blighted by legal aid deserts ? parts of the country where legally aided advice is sparse or non-existent. Because most law firms undertake a balance of both criminal and civil legal aid work, it will be important to ensure that any reforms of criminal legal aid do not reduce provision of civil legal aid. We were pleased that Lord Carter acknowledged that civil advice deserts would have to be tackled with extra investment.
In addition, any reforms must also preserve the diversity of legal aid practice to ensure that minority communities, often served by small firms and those operated by black and ethnic minority solicitors, can continue to receive the legal aid services that meet their needs.
Lord Carter?s remit does not extend to the courts, the police and the prosecution but he has identified areas of significant waste outside the control of solicitors. The justice system is blighted, for example, by delays in the arrival of prisoners to court, late disclosure of prosecution evidence and the inefficient listing of cases in courts. These problems, too, must be tackled.
Very worryingly, the legal aid system is failing to attract new entrants and many solicitors are leaving the system. Any new arrangements must convince newly qualified solicitors that publicly funded work provides a rewarding and secure career path. Legal aid must avoid the kind of human resource problems that have hampered the health and education sectors and have been so expensive to remedy.
Reflecting the urgency to develop a more effective legal aid system, Lord Carter has been set a tight timeframe to develop his proposals. Nonetheless, there are a number of fundamental issues at stake. Price competition must not undermine quality, independence or choice for vulnerable clients and any reforms must preserve the wealth of talent, commitment and diversity of legal aid solicitors in England and Wales. I hope this review signals a more secure future for the legal aid system. The Law Society has contributed a great deal to the review and we will continue to work with Lord Carter as he refines his proposals on criminal legal aid and develops those on civil legal aid.
The author is the president of the Law Society