Good morning ladies and gentleman. This is the first time I have spoken publicly about legal aid since the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, asked me to take over the portfolio after the recent government reshuffle.
In taking on these responsibilities my starting point is that I believe profoundly in the importance of fundamental rights of access to justice. I also fully appreciate the value of the work that you do defending the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.
The availability of publicly funded legal services is important in protecting the rights of the marginalised and ensuring access to fair trials. I also know that it has not been easy for any sector relying on state spending during this period of austerity and retrenchment.
I have, of course, already been involved in reforms to the Legal Aid system through my stewardship of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill through the House of Lords.
I’ll speak in a minute about my priorities as a Minister. But, since I’ve mentioned the Bill, let me say a word about the journey we’ve already been though. Reforming an area that touches the lives of many vulnerable people is not an easy thing to do. I won’t labour the arguments about cost except to say, as I’ve argued before, I don’t believe that the system the Coalition inherited was sustainable and we had no choice but to begin addressing it.
LASPO was bruising for everyone concerned, but I hope, whatever the disagreements of the past, we can all agree that the priority now is to look to the future. That means taking through the changes in train in a way which makes the most of the reformed system.
We’ve got a good foundation on which to build, not least that ultimately we’re all working towards the same goal, namely to protect and improve a well-funded legal aid system. And let us not lose sight of the fact that it will remain a well funded system. That means one that is not only available for those who need help most and in the most serious cases, protecting fundamental rights of access to justice, but also one that is modern and efficient.
And I’m clear that if we are to implement the reforms already in the pipeline, let alone go further, that it’s going to be vital for me as an incoming Minister on this portfolio to work closely with you, and other parts of the legal aid community. I want to listen to your views on how best we can do this.
There are at least three areas where I believe we need to make further progress.
First, there is the highly complex work of administering the legal aid system. This has its frustrations on all sides and I’m keen to give my backing to the reforms taking place to make it more efficient and responsive.
Second, continuing with our plans on competition. I know there are concerns about it. I want to work with you to ensure that we get it right.
Third, alternatives to court to resolve disputes. I made those arguments during the passage of the Bill. I genuinely believe them. They were not just window-dressing, but something we’re serious about, so we need to make progress on them.
LSC to Legal Aid Agency
Reducing the cost and bureaucracy of administering the scheme is an area where I hope we can build on progress.
As you know, the Legal Services Commission is the commissioner of around two and a half million acts assistance under the legal aid scheme. It delivers services through more than 3,000 legal organisations and indirectly through around 6,500 barristers. It is currently undertaking a major change programme, part of which will see it become an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Justice – the Legal Aid Agency.
You will be hearing more from Sir Bill Callaghan and Matthew Coats, Chair and Chief Executive of the LSC respectively about the changing face of the organisation later today.
I know that the LSC is working hard to improve efficiency and reduce waste in the system – something vital to making sure that the taxpayer’s hard earned money is used as effectively as possible. And I hope you’re encouraged to hear that, as part of its wider change programme, the LSC will be continuing to move civil legal aid processes from paper-based to online systems, to improve financial stewardship and increase the speed and accuracy of payments.
Damon Norville, Director of Change for the LSC will be talking to you about this in more detail this afternoon.
In addition to civil legal aid, the LSC is committed to expanding the scope of its online services following creation of the agency.
The LSC also has a key role in the introduction of the reformed system through its commissioning and contracting of providers and help with training and support.
We’ll be making every effort to ensure that the transition between the old and the new is as painless as possible.
The government remains keen to explore the use of competition in public services as a means of increasing efficiency and quality. I remain keen to look at what could be achieved in the legal aid market, and of course, we made a statement on our intentions to introduce price competition in the criminal legal aid in December last year.
Criminal legal aid represents a significant proportion of the Ministry of Justice’s annual expenditure – £1.1 billion out of £8.7 billion last year. So we need to ensure long-term sustainability, quality and value for money for the taxpayer in its provision. I’m not starry eyed about price competition but I do believe that it will make a real contribution to achieving this.
I recognise that such a systemic change to the way criminal legal aid services are procured is a cause for significant anxiety for providers. Rest assured we will be listening to providers of all types, large and small, rural and urban, solicitors and advocates. That includes the members of the Legal Aid practitioners Group along with others such as The Law Society and Bar Council.
We are keen to get a thorough understanding of the full range of views before publishing a consultation in 2013.
Alternatives to lawyers
My other priority for ensuring that scarce resources are targeted effectively is to make sure that the involvement of lawyers and courts is always the last rather than the first resort. Access to justice is not necessarily the same as access to a lawyer. Increased use of mediation, for example, can help families resolve differences without the need for expensive and lengthy court proceedings.
There is also work to be done on simplifying and streamlining court processes. The Family Justice Review provided a number of recommendations to make the system easier to navigate: introducing a single family court and changing courts processes, so they are easier to understand and quicker, for example.
I will be looking in more detail at ways of reducing the extent to which people have to rely on legal professionals to resolve their disputes.
We are also conscious of those people who will no longer be eligible for legal aid, once the reductions in the scope of the scheme take effect. The development of a new online Community Legal Advice Information Service will assist members of the public in determining whether they are eligible for legal aid, and where they are not, provide them with access to alternative sources of information and assistance.
This will include, for example, cross-referring to the planned ‘Online Hub for Separating Families’ which is being developed by the Department for Work and Pensions for introduction this autumn.
I’m aware I’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. But I wanted to give you a clear picture of my emerging thinking as the Minister now in charge of this portfolio. For me LASPO was the start of a process of reform, not the end. Whilst we cannot compromise on the need to press on with changes to the system, I hope we can have sensible conversation about how we deliver them. That is why I am here this morning and why I hope to continue this dialogue in the months and years ahead.