Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Fourth Report

6 Conclusion

144. The system of civil legal aid faces some serious problems. The evidence established clearly that the laudable aim of ensuring that costs were properly audited has resulted in a wasteful and self-defeating system of cost compliance auditing which bears little relation to quality or even shows much accuracy in the assessment of costs. The LSC has done well in using the Quality Mark system to remove solicitors from legal aid work who were unfit to give advice, but this achievement risks being spoilt by an ill considered and over rigid application of the cost compliance rules.

145. There is a significant danger that the system will not survive if urgent efforts are not made to enable solicitors' firms to recruit young entrants into legal aid work. There is widespread evidence of serious recruitment and retention problems. The initiatives made by the LSC to provide some support to students who wish to go into legal aid work (and stay there) are to be welcomed. We fear that this may be insufficient to cope with the immense problems surrounding student debt.

146. Although we believe that there is scope for improved management of solicitors firms, we note that the system relies on the dedication and goodwill of solicitors, who are committed to the service which they provide. They need more recognition for the work that they do, which is underpaid in comparison to other areas of the law. The firms which do legal aid work subsidise the system in a way which is not sufficiently quantified by Government or acknowledged. Every change to the system of administration of legal aid involves firms in considerable expense on business systems to cope with the changes. Much of this is taken for granted.

147. We note with interest the evidence relating to alternative methods of provision. Any new system must provide the same or better quality, access and value for money as the present system of delivery through private practice firms.

148. There are human rights obligations in relation to civil cases. There is significant evidence of unmet need for legal services by many in society—often among those who are most vulnerable. Too much has been squeezed out of the CLS budget as a result of the twin pressures of criminal and asylum work. Civil Legal Aid has become the Cinderella of the Government's services to address social exclusion and poverty. The highly desirable extension of provision and services has been possible only at the expense of cutting back on eligibility, scope and remuneration. This process has now gone too far.

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