MPs slam legal aid reform threat to services for vulnerable children and families

Government family legal aid reforms would reduce vulnerable children and families’ access to justice, MPs warned yesterday in a highly critical report.

The constitutional affairs select committee said revised plans published in March would reduce the number of law firms providing the service.

While the MPs said the revised plans were an improvement on much-criticised proposals issued last year, they would still lead to “the effective reduction in case fees for a significant number of specialist family legal aid suppliers”.

Under the proposals, hourly rates for care, contact and residence cases would be replaced by fixed fees, based on the level of representation and advice presented.

However, in a report criticising the government’s planned overhaul of the legal aid system, the committee said the proposed fees were too rigid and insufficiently sensitive to differences between cases, and will make it “increasingly unattractive to practice in this field of law”.

Family law representatives have repeatedly claimed that the current decline in firms willing to provide legal aid would continue under the plans.

The reform package is designed to limit the rising legal aid budget and the switch from hourly rates to fixed fees this year is to be followed by the introduction of a competitive tendering system in 2009.

The MPs said the reforms were being implemented too quickly and on the basis of little or no evidence for the reasons for the rise in legal aid costs or how its plans would affect both law firms and clients.

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