Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, House of Commons 2nd Reading
29 June 2011
Legal Aid Bill House of Commons 2nd reading ( 56kb)
Part 1 of the Bill restricts legal aid by limiting its scope to all but the most urgent, difficult cases. When these proposals were consulted on earlier in the year, they were rejected by no less than 90 per cent of all respondents. Citizens Advice was among them. We believe the Government is misguided. Its approach to rationalising the system and managing the budget may achieve minimal compliance with human rights obligations, but it completely fails to properly shape and prioritise services around peoples needs in a cost effective way.
The problems we identify with the package include :
- The loss of most early intervention advice, so vital for early resolution of problems.
- The practicality of the proposed new criteria and definitions for civil funding, which are structured around crisis point situations when the emphasis needs to be on prevention.
- The sheer scale of service reduction.
- The disproportionate impact on not for profit charitable advice providers, which threatens their financial viability.
- The potential increase of people having to navigate the legal system completely unassisted, and the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable peoples’ capacity to access redress.
Citizens Advice believes that there is scope to control costs and provide value for money for the legal aid scheme, but to do this requires policy makers to look at the whole system of advice services and legal assistance, with reference to an evidence base on legal and advice needs, so that resources can be targeted in the most effective way.
The most important improvements to the Bill would be:
- A discretionary scheme for early social welfare advice which would allow for flexibility around scope and procurement.
- Testing or piloting any new contract under the revised legal aid scheme in order to assess its viability and the administrative and bureaucratic burdens which the new scheme may impose.
- Linking the Bill to a wider strategic & cross-government review of advice needs, funding and delivery arrangements.
Given the substantial changes that this legislation entails, we believe that it is inappropriate to fast track this Bill through the Parliamentary process, which is what the Government appears to be doing. The issues deserve proper scrutiny, not least due to potential implications for MPs’ casework services. Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how far these proposals have taken into account the legitimate concerns put to them by constituents, charities, clients and caseworkers. Government have not explained or justified the need for fast-tracking in either the explanatory notes to the Bill or in a statement to the House.