Our legal aid system is one of the proudest legacies of post-war
Labour governments. At least that's what the lord chancellor,
Charles Falconer, tells us in the foreword to his department's
latest review of the issue. So why does the current administration
seem so intent on chipping away at it?
First to come under the budget strimmer were asylum seekers who
face having their legal aid hours cut.
Now it seems the government has turned its attention to another
vulnerable group - children in care proceedings.
Those in the legal system who advocate on these young people's
behalf have raised serious concerns over plans to try and reduce
the amount spent on legal representation. You might think "well yes
they would, wouldn't they", if it means less cash for them.
But there is a real question mark over the benefits of a switch
to a so-called "inquisitorial" system. This means the judge taking
the lead on exactly which issues can be aired. But could that mean
the voice of the child will be lost or at least not heard to the
extent it should?
The latest review talks about "the current, over-represented
approach within the courts" suggesting government has already made
its mind up that cuts need to be made.
Early intervention that avoids families being dragged through
the courts would be welcomed. But if the changes lead to a dilution
in the legal expertise available to families that would be very
It is also not entirely clear why it is necessary to focus on
cutting costs in the family justice system at all. The new report
talks about the rising costs of child care proceedings. But it also
states that while criminal legal aid spending has risen by some 37
per cent, legal advice and representation in civil and family
matters (excluding asylum) is down by 24 per cent.
However, whatever the figures mean, the government appears
hell-bent on pressing ahead at full speed when it should be
treading very carefully. Given the sensitivity of the issue it is
more important than ever to listen to the objections that have been
raised and, above all, not to proceed with unseemly haste simply
because of today's almost obsessional desire to drive down