Generally speaking, news of legal aid reform is met with some trepidation as it usually means even more people will be excluded from this critical safety net or the fees are to be reduced even further.
However, this week, a government announcement has been met with some enthusiasm; although the changes may take some time to work through into actual policy and legislative changes, at least the mood music has changed for the better.
What are the proposals?
Currently a very large number of people are excluded from magistrates’ court legal aid.
The government proposes to alter the income thresholds and the way in which disposable income is calculated. We need the final details in order to understand the true impact of these measures, but it is estimated that a further 13,000 cases may be eligible for legal aid assistance. Whilst this is not going as far as we had hoped for, it is nonetheless a tentative step in the right direction.
In the Crown Court there will be measures to change the way in which income contributions are calculated and collected. The proposal is to increase the maximum contribution period for income contributions at the Crown Court to 18 months, and implement a tiered contribution rate (40%/60%/80%).
A major change in the Court Court will be to remove the upper disposable income threshold for legal aid in the Crown Court. This means that everyone will now be eligible for legal aid in the Crown Court (subject as now to income and capital contributions in some cases). We welcome this as an important measure to ensure proper access to justice in the most serious cases.
Too good to be true?
Well, there are some policies which will be received less favourably.
The government will legislate to remove the current exemption from paying a capital contribution for homeowners convicted at the Crown Court who are in receipt of passporting benefits.
Finally, given that everyone will be eligible for crown court legal aid, the government will end payment of legal costs as part of a defence costs order (in the event of an acquittal) regarding any individual offered legal aid but decided to pay privately.
The package of changes spanning civil and criminal legal aid will be introduced in four distinct phases. We will closely monitor these changes and be able to fully advise you on your legal aid entitlement.
How can we help?
We ensure we keep up to date with any changes in legislation and case law so that we are always best placed to advise you properly. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact our team of criminal defence specialists on: 01376 511819