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This Library Note has been written in advance of the forthcoming debate in the House of Lords on 10 December 2015 on the future of legal aid. It provides a summary of the implementation of the reforms to legal aid following the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It also summarises further proposals for reforms to criminal and civil legal aid outlined by the Coalition Government, including with regard to the award of legal aid contracts. It outlines the scrutiny of the implementation of these reforms by parliamentary committees and other bodies, and the statements made so far by the current Government on this issue.

Measures to Reduce the Cost of Legal Aid during the 2010–15 Parliament

The Coalition Government introduced legislation intended to reduce the cost of legal aid to the Exchequer. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 reversed the position of the Access to Justice Act 1999, taking some types of case out of scope for legal aid funding. The Legal Aid Agency reported in its Annual Report and Accounts 2014–15 (June 2015) that net expenditure on legal aid in 2014–15 was £1.6 billion. This compares to a net expenditure of £2.2 billion in 2010–11.

The House of Commons Justice Committee argued that, while significant savings in the cost of legal aid had been achieved by the Ministry of Justice, the changes to legal aid had harmed access to justice for some litigants. The National Audit Office also criticised the Government for not taking an evidence‑based approach to the implementation of the policy and failing to recognise unintended costs to the Exchequer, including the impact of an increase in the number of litigants in person.

Measures to be implemented in the 2015–20 Parliament

Some further proposals for reforms following the passing of the 2012 Act have been proposed. For example, a new dual contracting model for criminal legal aid lawyers is scheduled to be implemented on 31 March 2016. Following his appointment as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove told the House of Commons in September 2015 that he had been in “intense talks” with representatives of the bar and the solicitors’ profession in regard to legal aid contracts. The Government announced a reduction in litigators’ fees by 8.75 percent; a measure that had been proposed by the Coalition Government. This would follow a reduction of 8.75 percent in the previous year. However, Mr Gove has also cancelled the criminal courts charge (also introduced under the Coalition Government) that was paid by convicted criminals towards the cost of their case.

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