We have already implemented a programme of reforms to legal aid comprising reductions in fees paid to criminal and civil legal aid service providers and changes to civil legal aid scope and eligibility. Those reforms should deliver savings of some £320 million per annum in 2014-15.
However, against a backdrop of continuing pressure on public finances, we need to continue to bear down on the cost of legal aid to ensure we are getting the best deal for the taxpayer and that the system commands the confidence of the public. These new proposals aim to do so in ways that ensure limited public resources are targeted at those cases which justify it and those people who need it, drive greater efficiency in the provider market and for the Legal Aid Agency, and support our wider efforts to transform the justice system.
While the earlier reforms have done much to ensure that taxpayer funding is targeted at those who most need it, there remain some anomalies which we believe undermine the credibility of the scheme and of the wider justice system. We do not, for example, believe it is right for the taxpayer to fund the Crown Court defence of those who can afford to pay, for civil cases that lack merit, for weak judicial review cases, or for matters which are not of sufficient priority to justify public money and which can be resolved through non-legal channels. We are also clear that someone should have a strong connection with the UK in order to benefit from civil legal aid.
The primary focus of our proposals is in relation to crime, where we are still spending over £l billion a year. We are proposing to introduce a model of competitive tendering, initially in criminal legal aid work only and over a longer period in civil and family services. Our preferred approach is to introduce competition for the full range of litigation services (except very-high-costs cases (crime)) and magistrates court representation. For criminal advocacy, we propose to restructure the Crown Court advocacy fee scheme in ways that should help encourage efficient working and the prompt resolution of cases, consistent with our overall objectives for the criminal justice system, and to reduce the use of multiple counsel. We are also proposing to reduce fees paid in very-high-cost cases (crime), which are the small number of cases that attract a disproportionately high level of spend. The overall effect on advocates will be to rebalance the fee income so those at the top take the greatest reduction, while those earning the lowest fees may actually see a small increase. We also propose limited reform to civil legal aid and experts’ fees to ensure they are fair and consistent with those paid for similar work, represent better value for money and reflect efficiencies within the justice system.
We estimate that the proposals set out in this consultation would, if implemented, deliver savings of some £220 million per annum in 2018-19.