Family Legal Aid Reform - Justice Committee Contents

6  Conclusions

67. The Legal Services Commission is running a substantial and complex consultation programme of inter-related initiatives aimed at shifting legal aid onto the footing identified by Lord Carter as the most cost-effective way forward. There have been more than 30 consultations launched since 2006.[104] More reform is inevitable. However, the consistent message from evidence received on legal aid reform is that the Commission is proceeding at speed with inconsistent data, a weak evidence-base and a poor understanding of the shape, the cost drivers, other motivating factors, and the structure of its supplier market. In addition, as Lord Carter himself emphasised strongly, this fundamental reform of legal aid provision—for 60 years the pride of the justice system in this country—requires the cooperation of those who deliver the services.

68. We urge the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission to take an evidence-based approach to reform, to be much more open and transparent with their data and to make far greater efforts to engage the legal profession and the other professionals on which they rely, at a much earlier stage, initially in gathering evidence and then in the process of developing any further proposals. Crucially, the Government and the Commission must not drive the system towards the endgame identified by Lord Carter faster than the existing pattern of legal services provision can bear. The Commission seems to be relying on a mantra of 'swings and roundabouts' and points to the potential for consolidation, increasing use of in-house advocates and the legislative and regulatory framework for 'alternative business structures'.[105] However, however, there is minimal evidence of any of these developments taking place on the ground in family law.[106] The legal aid structure being designed by the Legal Services Commission seems to be based on a pattern of supply which simply does not yet exist. The Commission appears to have failed to take an objective evidence-based approach to delivering the outcomes identified for it by the Government.

69. The Legal Services Commission says that its proposals are "not about cuts", and the lawyers told us that they are not asking for more money. Such fundamental accord should create a platform on which it should be possible successfully to design an effective system that will deliver the best possible outcomes for those who find themselves enmeshed in the family legal system and need advice and representation, whether on a relatively straightforward case or a whole cluster of complex matters. We believe that the two key issues raised with us are the equality of reward for equality of work and the need to fund the more serious and complex cases properly and in a way that reflects the real dynamics of the profession. We believe that these issues are capable of resolution on the basis of constructive engagement between the Government, Legal Services Commission and stakeholders; but there needs to be a fundamental change of attitude on the part of the Commission.

70. We are also concerned about the argument over funding of guardians and independent social work. The Legal Services Commission told us that what was important was that it funded what it was statutorily obliged to fund and that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service funded what it was statutorily obliged to fund. We do not agree. We believe that what is important is that vulnerable children trapped in intractable court cases, whether public or private, receive the advice and representation that they need and that the court has available the best welfare information it can have. If achieving these goals requires a funding model that upsets departmental silos, so be it.

104   See annex for a list of LSC consultations since 2006 Back

105   LSC consultation paper, paragraph 2.10 Back

106   Ev 68, paragraph 131 (Family Justice Council) Back

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