Committee launches inquiry into Draft Criminal Defence Service Bill

Press notice/12 of session 2003-04                            21 May 2004


Details of a new inquiry that will scrutinise Government plans to change the criminal legal aid system, were announced today by the Constitutional Affairs select committee.

The decision to launch an inquiry follows the Government's publication earlier this week of proposals aimed at tackling the rising costs of criminal legal aid (The Consultation Paper is available at: ww.dca.gov.uk/consult/crimdefser/crimdefserbill.htm).

As well as re-introducing means testing in criminal cases, the Government plans to transfer responsibility for administering criminal legal aid from the courts to the Legal Services Commission.

Launching the inquiry, Committee Chairman Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:

"The present Government only recently abolished the means testing of defendants in criminal cases, which it described as ineffective and wasteful. We need to ask whether there is a real need to re-introduce means testing and investigate whether it would in fact help to reduce the amount spent on criminal legal aid.

"We must be absolutely certain that the measures would not restrict access to justice or create disproportionate bureaucracy and delays.

"We will look at the reasoning behind the proposals as well as considering the relative merits of the three means testing options put forward by the Government."

The Committee wants to address the following key questions on which it would welcome written evidence:

Terms of Reference:

• Why has there been such a large increase in spending on criminal legal aid?
• Do the Government's proposals represent the best way of controlling rising expenditure on criminal legal aid and how effective are they likely to be in practice?
• How will the re-introduction of a financial eligibility (means) test affect access to justice?
• How difficult will it be to administer means testing in criminal cases?
• What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of the three means test models suggested in the Government's consultation paper?
• Should the authority to grant the right to publicly funded representation be removed from the courts and transferred to the Legal Services Commission?
• Are solicitors best placed to determine eligibility for criminal aid to grant help to qualifying clients?

Oral evidence sessions are likely to start in late June. As the Committee hopes to report on the proposals before the introduction of a bill, its inquiry will run in parallel to the Government's own consultation.

Submissions relating to the terms of reference above are invited from relevant interested parties. These should be sent to the Clerk of the Committee at the address above by Monday 14 June. An electronic version in MS Word or Rich Text format should also be submitted, either by e-mail to [email protected] or on a disk and this should be accompanied by a letter stating clearly who the submission is from, together with relevant contact details. Attention is drawn to the guidance on the submission of evidence which can be found at www.parliament.uk/commons/selcom/witguide.htm

Please note that the Committee's terms of reference specifically preclude it from consideration of individual cases.