The government will ‘soon’ launch its long-awaited post-legislative review of legal aid, the lord chancellor announced during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Speaking at an event organised by the Society of Conservative Lawyers, with the Bar Council and Law Society at the Principal Hotel, David Lidington said the review will provide the Ministry of Justice with the ‘opportunity to take stock and to see whether there are good arguments for specific changes to be made’.
But, he stressed: ‘I’m not going to pretend that I have a crock of gold that the chancellor has suddenly presented me with.’
While the overall legal aid spend had come down, he said the case for funding had to be looked at ‘in the context of other spending priorities – not just in the Ministry of Justice but across government as a whole’.
Alongside the legal aid review, Lidington said his department will be reviewing its policy on court and tribunal fees in light of Supreme Court’s ruling that the employment tribunal fee scheme, introduced in 2013, was unlawful.
Lidington also pledged to press ahead with the programme of modernisation and digitisation of the courts, which will ‘make justice more accessible to many more people than it has sometimes been in the past’.
Overall, he said his department has a ‘very important and very demanding agenda’ not least because of the outcome of the referendum to leave the European Union.
Brexit, he said, is a ‘huge challenge’ for the country and puts particular duties on the MoJ, including ‘the responsibility to work with colleagues across government to make sure the agreements reached between us and the EU 27 are ones that are sound legally and that are going to work in terms of the settlement of disputes in the future’.
Praising the contribution made to the UK purse by legal services, Lidington said Brexit means there is a lot at stake for the legal professions and legal services in the UK. He stressed the ‘enormous importance’ that the government does its utmost to secure a deal that enables that prosperity to continue to thrive.
‘We have to make the case that mutual recognition and market access for professions and professional services in everybody’s interest,’ he said. While World Trade Organisation arrangements would provide a ‘passable framework’ for trading goods, he said they would ‘not come anywhere near to what is needed for trading services’.
In addition, he said the MoJ needed to prepare legislation to ensure UK law is in ‘a fit state’ to facilitate continued legal services access to external markets once we have left the EU.
Responding the chairman of the bar, Andrew Langdon QC, said that waiting for the legal aid review had been ‘a bit like waiting for Godot’. He said the EU withdrawal bill, aspects of the court modernisation process and the issue of court fees troubled the bar, and stressed the bar’s willingness to work with the government and share itsexpertise.
Joe Egan, the president of the Law Society, echoed the remarks and stressed the critical importance that the legal profession and government work together to ensure mutual market access post-Brexit and the long-term future of the economy.
Aside from a mention of his ‘comprehensive strategy to tackle domestic violence and abuse’, Lidington’s speech to conference focused exclusively on his plans for prison reform. Prisons, he said were the ‘greatest challenge facing our criminal justice system’.
He announced increased intelligence-led counter-drone operations, to combat organised crime within prisons, a greater focus on ‘intensive rehabilitation’ in the community, particularly to tackle offenders with substance misuse and mental health needs, and plans to give prison governors new powers over how their prisons are run.
He said £64 million would be made available to reform youth custody, increasing the number of frontline staff in youth offender institutions by 20%, and announced the creation of a national task force – the New Futures Network – to match offenders with employers and make sure training in prisons mirrors the demands in the local jobs market.
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