The amendments are fairly self-explanatory and I think that their effect is plain. Amendments 129 and 130 place a certain restriction on the Lord Chancellor’s freedom to make prescriptions about financial eligibility for legal aid, in accordance with clause 22, as I propose amending it. Amendment 132 is a probing amendment to initiate debate on provisions of the Bill that allow the Lord Chancellor to make cuts to the remuneration of legal aid professionals that are additional to the cuts alluded to in the Government’s consultation response.
Read together, my amendments would limit the extent to which the Lord Chancellor could change the thresholds for eligibility for legal aid, the extent of contributions, and the level at which they are set. They recognise the importance of maintaining a system in which not only the poorest of the poor but those on low or average incomes are not effectively discouraged from vindicating their rights by the considerable costs that might be involved.
Provisions on eligibility in the Bill are largely skeletal, but clause 20 provides for the Lord Chancellor to make regulations setting eligibility thresholds. At present, the only indication of the level and nature of reviewed eligibility requirements is set out in the Government’s response to the consultation on reform to the legal aid system. The Government intend to continue with plans to increase the level of income-based contributions to a maximum of 30% of monthly disposable income.
Liberty believes that higher thresholds for financial eligibility and further changes to the level of financial contribution will place even more people with low disposable incomes in the unenviable position of choosing between financial hardship and a lack of advice and assistance in upholding their fundamental rights. There is a belief that that will have a chilling effect, significantly undermining the effective protection of human rights in the United Kingdom.