Saturday 9th June 2012
By Kenneth Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Justice
Legal aid is a fundamental pillar of our justice system. Despite criticism of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, passed by Parliament this April, the fact remains that our measures retain a legal aid system that will be amongst the most generous in the world.
It has been our guiding principle throughout the passage of the Act that legal aid must be available when life and liberty are at stake, where a person is at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care. The parliamentary debates have helpfully honed the detail of our proposals to ensure legal aid continues to serve the needs of justice by supporting the vulnerable; for example, making special provision so domestic violence victims do not have to deal with their abuser in court to sort out child contact or money issues, and extending the evidence eligible to prove domestic violence and that legal aid may be claimed.
The public rightly expects their money to be spent on the most serious and important cases that genuinely require specialist legal advice. Legal aid should not routinely be given where other funding is available or where litigants can present their own case. The taxpayer should certainly not be put in the position of funding speculative or unnecessary litigation that a person would not consider if they were paying from their own pocket, for example when a landlord and tenant are arguing over routine maintenance.
The Act is therefore based on a belief that people should be encouraged to take more responsibility for exploring the full range of practical advice available to tackle problems early on. We want to support the use of alternatives such as mediation which can be quicker, cheaper, simpler and often provides better outcomes for many people. That is why we are increasing spending on publicly funded mediation to £25 million each year. Legal action should be a last resort, not a default first reaction to solving disputes.
Our changes to the scope of legal aid are part of a broader shift to try to reduce unnecessary adversarial litigation. Those principles drive other measures in the Act aimed at addressing the symptoms of a compensation culture where the public face increased insurance costs, and local authorities and firms are scared to go about their business due to the legal costs that widely advertised no-win no-fee deals can ramp up. No-win no-fee arrangements still have a role to play as they can provide legal help for those who cannot afford a lawyer, but the Act bans referral fees and reforms the rules so the cost and risk of taking on cases is more evenly balanced between claimants and defendants. Defendants will not be denied access to justice through fear of high legal costs, while a reduction in legal costs will provide a brake on increased prices and insurance premiums.
Tough choices have to be made about public spending during times of global economic difficulty. The exponential growth of the legal aid bill was a problem that previous governments had tried in vain to control, and the consequence of which was a level of legal aid provision unaffordable in any era-never mind one of financial austerity. Unchecked spending at that level threatened the very future of legal aid and the principles of justice on which it is based.
I am proud that the measures contained in the Act have secured the future of legal aid in this country, placing the principle of fair access to legal representation on a sound footing that can be sustained for future generations.