Meet the Minister
On 15 January 2014 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid met to discuss the cuts to legal aid with Shailesh Vara MP, new Parliamentary Under-Secretary for State and Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid.
Report by Adam Cooper, YLAL member
Shailesh Vara MP began the APPG by reading a prepared speech on the recent and forthcoming cuts to legal aid funding. He stated that the Government had listened hard to all responses to the consultation and will continue to do so. But he stressed time and again that we could not escape the reality of today’s fiscal challenge. His overriding message was “no change is not an option”.
This was confirmed by the announcement that a further 1% saving is required of the Ministry of Justice this year and the next, over and above the 1/3 spending reduction already earmarked. He stood by the strongly contested Government line that we have one of the most generous legal aid schemes in the world and that spending must represent value for money for the taxpayer.
The questions were started by Deena Blacking, representing YLAL. She asked if the Minister would assure the public that he is not neglecting the fact that many of those who use legal aid are hard-working taxpayers, earning relatively little in performing such a vital role in society. The Minister was quick to reply that in fact the average Barrister’s salary working on legal aid cases was a staggering £84,000. This comment was met with much grumbling from the audience, which largely rejected the veracity of this figure.
The bulk of the questioning revolved around the Government’s perceived use of misleading figures to distort the reality of an over-costly system and to create an unfounded need for cuts. Lord Carlile QC and Nigel Lithman QC, Chairman of the CBA, regularly interjected expressing concern that the Minister continued to use such alarmist figures to paint a false picture. Lord Carlile brought particular attention to the fact that the Government cuts to advocates’ fees in very high cost cases (VHCCs) has led to a shortfall in advocates picking up such cases and so far nobody willing to take seven cases listed for March.
When asked by Nicholas Lavender QC, Chair of the Bar Council, why the Government was ignoring the Bar Council’s views, the Minister replied, “we heard you, but you probably didn’t hear our response.”
Max Hardy, Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, challenged the Government’s use of international comparisons on the legal aid budget as a distortion of reality, given the almost unique way in which our legal system operates. The Minister stated his comparisons were only with like-for-like systems such as in Canada and New Zealand.
Some members of the audience clearly felt their questions were dodged or left unanswered. The Minister was set in his agenda, giving the message that the Government would plough on with the majority of its cuts irrespective. He stuck to the points he had made in his opening speech throughout, with the feeling from the audience that he had indeed heard their concerns, but not listened.
In view of the Minister’s comments, YLAL believes it is even more important for members to put pressure on their MPs to campaign against the Transforming Legal Aid proposals. Find out how to do so here. If you would like to join YLAL’s APPG Subgroup, email YLALinfo@gmail.com.