Tories hint at limited legal aid reform

Conservative MPs signalled their support for greater provision of legal aid to help people obtain early advice.

Speaking at a fringe event organised by LawWorks during the Conservative party conference in Manchester, the solicitor general Robert Buckland indicated that aspects of the legal aid cuts introduced by the coalition government should be revisited. He accepted that there are gaps in provision, which have created unfairness and which need to be plugged.

Commenting on the Labour-backed Bach Commission report on access to justice, Buckland said that while the proposed statutory right to access to justice ‘sounds like a great headline’, he said ‘it won’t work’.

But, he said: ‘There is a strong case for a significant increase in funding for early advice.’ At a separate event, Bob Neill, the chairman of the justice select committee, told Legal Voice that he also saw merit in this.

While Buckland said he did not agree with ‘philosophical aspects’ of the review, chaired by Labour’s former justice minister, Lord Bach, he said there was ‘some common ground’ that could be worked on.

But he stressed that it had not only been the Conservative government that had sought to cut public funding for legal advice. ‘Let’s not pretend that legal aid cuts started in 2012 – they didn’t. Lord Bach has a bit of a short memory – he is failing to remember the cuts to the system that were made during the Blair-Brown years in government,’ he said.

Speaking at a later event organised by the Society of Conservative Lawyers, Buckland took another swipe at Labour, saying that in 2010 Lord Falconer had described the £2bn annual budget for legal aid as ‘unsustainable’.

Buckland told delegates at the LawWorks event that the government’s review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Act 2012, delayed by the snap election, was underway, and told Legal Voice that he hoped it would ‘yield fruit’.

He said a key focus would be on exceptional case funding. Accepting that there had been a much lower than anticipated spend on these cases, he said: ‘There is a strong view that since the implementation of LASPO there has been an overly restrictive approach taken to those applications by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). My personal view is that the criteria applied by the LAA has been too restrictively applied and I think that is wrong. There is unfairness that needs to be addressed.’

Buckland also suggested that funding for family cases should be looked at again, together with the working of the family courts more generally and questioned whether the current adversarial approach should be maintained.

Legal aid funding in family cases was touched on during an event organised by think-tank Demos and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, at which panellists indicated that funding should be available for early legal advice, in order to divert more couples away from the courts and towards mediation to other alternative dispute resolution.

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