But just as education and the NHS need reform, so too does legal aid. Legal aid spending is rising to unaffordable levels, and the balance of expenditure is wrong. We need to redirect and rebalance the system.
Governments of different political stripes have been wrestling with this problem for years. Our job is to provide a system of legal aid which is fair — fair to the vulnerable, fair to defendants, fair to practitioners and fair to the taxpayer. We asked Lord Carter of Coles to look at the way the Government procures legal aid. He issued his interim report this year, and his final report is imminent.
Even for an experienced Whitehall hand, he has a tough job on here. Over the past decade alone, legal aid spending has been galloping upwards, rising, for example, from £1.5 billion in 1997 to £2.1 billion last year — far outstripping inflation. We cannot allow this to continue.
With no new money to hand, we need to distribute the budget we have to best effect. Although crime overall is falling, criminal legal aid has been the driver for the increase in spending. This rise is at the expense of civil legal aid — and this disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and socially excluded, groups which Labour has traditionally, and rightly, sought to protect. They are in need of early, high-quality legal advice to save their problems from multiplying and their lives descending into chaos — at great cost, to them and to us. We have made headway in this area, but more radical reform is needed.
Lord Carter is looking for a system that will provide better quality and better value for money. It is not good value, for instance, to have 200 solicitors on a police station duty rota handling only one or two clients on their watch and waiting around at public expense to see those same few clients the next day at the magistrates’ court. Nor is the public well served by duplication of effort between solicitors and barristers in the Crown Court, nor by the massive growth in the length and costs of very high-cost cases (VHCCs). At the same time, the system does not recognise those who produce the highest-quality service nor does it reward the most efficient.