Today the House of Commons Justice Committee report on the “Government's proposed reform of legal aid” was published. It makes sombre reading.
In short, the Government intends to reduce the money spent on “legal aid” by £350 million a year, primarily by taking certain areas of law outside the scope of legal aid, and by reducing the level of fees paid to providers.
In relation to the former proposal, the categories of law which may soon fall outside the legal aid scheme includes clinical negligence, consumer law, education, debt, employment and welfare benefits. In other areas of law, the sort of help that one can receive under the scheme will be severely restricted - for example in housing, family and immigration. Fortunately, there are currently no proposals to stop funding in mental health cases.
In relation to the latter proposal, no solicitor whose focus is on making money decides to undertake legally aided work. The fees are already low, and bear no correlation to the fees solicitors can charge for privately funded work. Many solicitors have already abandoned legal aid work as unprofitable, and the promise of a further cut to already low fees is not going to boost morale or stop solicitors leaving the field which will result in lack of representation and perhaps routine violation of the legal and human rights of inidviduals detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 patients; it is they who will be the real losers in this.
The Report cites some very interesting figures. For example, the number of cases involving mental health law has been rising year after year, from 31,085 “acts of assistance” under the legal aid scheme in 2004/2005, to 38,632 in 2009/2010. Notwithstanding this - and of course the increase in the numbers of people detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 - the amount spent on mental health cases fell from £54 million in 2004/2005 to £36 million in 2009/2010. Compare this with, say, housing cases; the expenditure on these
rose from £53 million to £60 million in the same period. It seems that mental health lawyers are now doing more work for less money.
The Committee agreed that the legal aid budget should be cut, but also suggested that the proposals must be refined and alternative savings explored as vulnerable people will be “disproportionately” hit by the proposed cuts. Various recommendations have been made; now in order to find out if justice will become only be the preserve of the rich, we must wait to see how the Government responds to these.