Constitutional Affairs Committee

Press notice 14 of Session 2003-04                19 July 2004


CIVIL LEGAL AID SYSTEM UNDER THREAT - ACCESS TO JUSTICE BEING DENIED

Flaws in the civil legal aid system are restricting access to justice amongst society’s most vulnerable people says a new report published by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

The report, which follows a 6 month inquiry into the civil legal aid system, warns that the system of civil legal aid is facing serious problems.

It concludes that there is significant evidence of unmet demand for legal aid and it warns that in some geographical areas and in some fields of law assistance is not readily available.

The Committee argues that this is partly the result of a squeeze on funding caused by the increased cost of criminal legal aid and asylum work.

The findings also point to serious problems recruiting and retaining solicitors in the legal aid field and caution that the system will not survive unless urgent efforts are taken to attract more students to legal aid work. MPs say that spiralling student debt and comparatively low remuneration mean that graduates are being lured away from legal aid work to higher paid areas of law.

Criticism is also levelled at the current system used for auditing solicitors who work in the legal aid sphere. The report says  that it is arbitrary, inaccurate and bureaucratic and reveals that it is penalising competent and honest solicitors. 

MPs say more research must be done on broadening means of delivering advice using phonelines, new technology and outreach services.

Commenting on the report Committee Chairman Rt Hon Alan Beith said:

“Access to justice is a basic right. Unfortunately, our report shows that legal aid is increasingly being restricted to those with little or no means at all.

“This will lead to hardship and the denial of justice to many, for example those who are homeowners, but who are by no means rich.

“Vulnerable people need competent advisers who can deal with the complex range of problems that are faced by those requiring legal aid, particularly on housing, debt and employment problems. This means that the system must be urgently reformed.

“Civil Legal Aid has become the Cinderella of the Government’s services to address social exclusion and poverty. Eligibility, scope and funding are increasingly restrictive. This process has now gone too far.”

Notes for Editors:
1. Legal Aid spending amounted to £1908.5million in 2202-3, which is almost two-thirds of the Department for Constitutional Affairs' Budget. Of this amount, £812.8 million was allocated to civil legal aid
2. Excluding immigration / asylum cases about 585,000 people were helped in 2003/04, down from 658,000 in 2002/3
3. The Committee will shortly publish its report on the Criminal Defence Service
4. Full terms of reference can be found on the Committee's website: http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/conaffcom.cfm
5. Committee membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP(Chairman), Peter Bottomley MP, James Clappison MP, Ross Cranston MP, Mrs Ann Cryer MP,  Jim Cunningham MP, Hilton Dawson MP, Andrew Rosindell MP, Clive Soley MP, Keith Vaz MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP
6. For further information contact Adele Brown, Select Committee Media Officer, 020 7219 0724, [email protected]