Lord Justice Jackson calls for Govt rethink on legal aid cuts
Lord Justice Jackson – the author of the current shake-up of civil litigation costs – has criticised controversial Government cuts to legal aid, warning the reforms are “contrary to [my] recommendations”.
In a speech to the Cambridge Law Faculty this week, Jackson discussed his views of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO), drawing attention to his 2010 report on civil costs reform which highlights “the vital necessity of making no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility”.
Jackson raised particular concerns regarding Government plans to withdraw legal aid from clinical negligence cases, which he deemed as the “most unfortunate” area to be cut.
He referred to the judiciary’s response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid sent in February this year that said: “The proposal to remove clinical negligence claims entirely from the scope of legal aid does not appear to us to be justified.”
However, Jackson also criticised the Law Society for dealing with the legal aid cuts and Jackson’s model for civil cost reforms – both of which are contained in the LASPO bill – as if they were “a composite package”. He commented: “It is true that the legal aid cuts and the Jackson reforms are being dealt with in the same bill, but that is a matter of convenience. It is not because they form a composite package.”
The veteran judge also argued that Chancery Lane – which has backed the Sound Off For Justice campaign against the bill – should be clearer about whether it is campaigning in the public interest or in its representative role for solicitors.
He added: “The Law Society may wish to consider whether it is representing (a) the sectional interest and viewpoint of CFA lawyers or (b) the wider public interest. Both roles are perfectly legitimate. I would, however, respectively suggest that may it may be inauspicious to combine both roles in a single campaign.”
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson responded: “We welcome Lord Justice Jackson’s comments where he reiterated his opposition in principle to the Government’s cuts to legal aid. However, there are some of his remarks with which we strongly disagree. The Society’s opposition to the Jackson proposals is not driven by the interests of a group of lawyers but about claimants who have suffered injury and, under these proposals, may lose the ability to gain compensation… The availability of legal aid and the Jackson proposals are inextricably linked.
The legal aid bill was unveiled by the Government in June this year in a bid to significantly reduce the £2.1bn annual legal aid budget by £350m, largely through a major withdrawal of civil legal aid.
The areas set to be affected by legal aid cuts include: welfare benefits, clinical negligence, personal injury, debt, divorce, employment, immigration and housing.
The bill has currently gone through two readings in Parliament. While the reforms have already attracted strong criticism from lawyers, welfare campaigners and opposition politicians, the comments of Jackson, whose recommendations on reforming civil costs look set to be implemented via LASPO, will be seen as damaging to the Ministry of Justice’s case for pressing ahead with the package.
The withdrawal of legal aid for clinical negligence has been particularly controversial, with many lawyers arguing that the modest savings cannot justify its removal.
Peter Smith, FirstAssist managing director for legal expenses insurance and head of ATE, commented: “The problem with the legal aid cuts is that they are coupled with the Jackson reforms, and I think that when Jackson was given a brief to look into how he could cut costs and increase access to justice, he rather assumed that legal aid was going to remain unchanged.
“As a result, there is going to be a whole pool of people that cannot afford to bring valid claims, such as clinical negligence cases, because there is no legal aid and no recoverability of ATE insurance as the bill stands in its current form.”