The government has pledged to spend ‘up to an extra £135m’ a year injection to support the legal aid sector following last week’s support for industrial action as threatened by barristers. As part of the proposals, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is proposing to broaden access to the civil legal aid scheme, scrap the means test in some cases, discount the value of a property for victims of domestic abuse seeking publicly funded legal help and extend publicly funded representation to families at inquests. Today’s announcement claims to scrap the financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants ending the so-called ‘Innocence Tax’ which has led to innocent people being financially ruined by massive legal costs despite being wrongly prosecuted and acquitted.
The sum of £135m was identified as the ‘minimum’ first step to ‘nursing’ the system back to health after ‘years of neglect’ by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Criminal Legal Aid Review published at the end of last year – see here. The Bellamy review called for funding to be increased for solicitors and barristers as soon as possible to an annual level of ‘at least 15%’ above present levels – however, the Ministry of Justice insists it needs to consult for a further 12 weeks due to the scale of reform.
‘We owe our whole legal profession – solicitors, barristers, court staff and judiciary – a debt of gratitude for keeping the wheels of justice turning over the last two years,’ said the justice secretary Dominic Raab. ‘That’s why we are accepting Sir Christopher Bellamy’s recommendation for an uplift in fees and a total of £135 million extra investment to ensure legal representation is there for those who most need it as we build back a stronger and fairer society after the pandemic.’
According to the Ministry of Justice, the new investment would ‘match’ Sir Christopher’s recommendation. ‘When added to the extra £200 million each year to speed up the courts system, it will bring total taxpayer funding for criminal defence to £1.2 billion a year,’ the MoJ added.
The MoJ reckons that the funding would sit alongside ‘the most ambitious reform of criminal legal aid in decades’ that would ‘ensure professionals are better paid for the work they actually carry out and help free up capacity in courts’. ‘For example, one change would boost pay for lawyers representing suspects in police stations by 15% to tackle the perverse incentive that currently encourages lawyers to wait and represent defendants in Crown Courts because it pays better,’ the MoJ said. ‘The proposals will improve the advice available in police stations and stop cases going to court unnecessarily, delivering speedier justice to victims.’
The MoJ claims that the reforms would ‘open up’ the civil scheme for ‘around two million more people’ and remove the means test for ‘some applicants’. ‘Domestic abuse victims who are disputing house ownership will particularly benefit from our proposal that disputed assets will not count towards their wealth,’ it added. ‘The changes to the legal aid means test will be achieved by raising the income and capital thresholds for legal aid. This means that over 2 million more people in England and Wales will have access to civil legal aid and 3.5 million more will have access to criminal legal aid at the magistrates’ court.’
The MoJ reckons that ‘for the first time ever’ legal representation will be made free for all under-18s and there will be legal help for families at inquests where there has been a potential breach of human rights.