Thursday 13 October 2011
The chairman of the Legal Services Commission has warned of the risk of ministers intervening for political reasons in decisions about the granting of legal aid.
Speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference in Birmingham last week, Sir Bill Callaghan (pictured) expressed concerns that the Ministry of Justice’s plans to take direct control of the administration of legal aid lack provisions to protect the independence of civil servants making funding decisions.
Proposals to transform the LSC into an executive agency of the MoJ, with a director of casework making funding decisions on behalf of the secretary of state, are contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through parliament.
Callaghan said: ‘It is very important there is some protection from political interference in decisions on granting legal aid,’ particularly in cases that can arouse political controversy.
Responding to questions from the director of the Legal Action Group, Steve Hynes, Callaghan called for an independent tribunal to hear funding appeals over decisions to grant legal aid, to stop any interference from ministers.
Callaghan said: ‘I’ve seen ministers with arms of very different lengths when it comes to decision-making on entitlement to legal aid.’
Commenting on Callaghan’s remarks, Hynes said: ‘It’s the closest I’ve heard to an official from the LSC admitting that there has been interference from politicians in the past. It’s the closest to a smoking gun that we’ve had.’
Hynes noted a case brought by peace campaigner Maya Evans, in which it emerged that then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth had secretly lobbied the MoJ to prevent legal aid being granted.
Funding rules were subsequently changed.