This was the subject of the annual JUSTICE Tom Sargant memorial lecture given by Roger Smith OBE, Director of Justice, on Tuesday 16 October.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) received royal assent on 1 May. It is claimed that LASPO will result in savings to the legal aid budget of around £350 million. These savings will be achieved largely through significant reductions to the scope and availability of legal aid.
At the outset Roger Smith quoted Lord Mackay of Clashfern who, when referring to the legal aid system as Conservative Lord Chancellor in 1991, said “We are just about at the limit of what is possible without radical change”. Roger Smith argued that the extent of the cuts resulting from LASPO now make “radical change” inevitable. However, he went on to consider whether this radical change will, as many people fear, inevitably manifest itself in a steady decline in the quality and availability of legal aid or whether there can be radical reform to the way in which legal services are provided to those who most need the support of the state in order to achieve justice.
It was suggested that one way in which the system could be reformed would be to create a single ‘justice budget’ covering the courts, judges, legal aid and prosecution (with the prison budget managed separately). It is argued that this will allow greater oversight and clarity in the management of the resources available to achieve justice. For example, savings made on courts could be spent on legal aid and vice versa.
It was further argued that legal aid should be considered in conjunction with reform of substantive law, methods of adjudication and improving the provision of information where funding is not available to provide direct legal advice and assistance.
Little of this will be music to the ears of defence lawyers. They continue to emphasise that stagnation and reduction of legal aid rates makes it impossible for publicly funded defence lawyers to compete on a level basis with law enforcement agencies who have no cap on the resources they are able to deploy in any particular case.